The image of Jesus as the “suffering servant” has served to ritualize suffering as redemptive. While suffering points to the need for redemption, suffering in and of itself is not redemptive. Furthermore, the belief that undeserved suffering is to be endured through faith can encourage the powerful to be insensitive to the suffering of others and forces the less powerful to be complacent to their suffering — thereby maintaining the status quo.
For example, as an instrument for execution by Roman officials, Jesus’ suffering on the cross should never be seen as redemptive any more than the suffering of African-American men dangling from trees in the South during Jim Crow America. The lynchings of African-American men were never meant as restitution for the sins of the Ku Klux Klan, but were, instead, because of their sins that went unaccounted for decades, until the 1951 Federal Anti-Lynching Act was passed.
In other words, Jesus’ death on the cross and the lynching of African-Americans are synonymous experiences.
As a deeply controversial icon in Christian liberation theologies for many feminists, womanists, African Americans, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender religious scholars, the cross is the locus of redemption insofar as it serves as a lens to critically examine and make connections between the abuses of power and institutions of domination that brought about the suffering Jesus endured during his time, and the abuses of power and institutions of domination that bring about the suffering endured by women, people of color, and sexual minorities in our present day.
When suffering is understood as an ongoing cycle of abuse that goes on unexamined and unaccounted for, we can then begin to see its manifestation in systems of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and religion-based bigotry not only in our everyday lives but also in the world.
With a new understanding about suffering and how it victimizes the innocent and aborts the Christian mission of inclusiveness, Jesus’ death at Calvary invites a different hermeneutic than its classically-held one.
So when the Christian community looks at the cross this Easter Sunday, we must see not only Jesus there, but the many other faces and bodies that are crucified along with his around the world, too. In so doing, we deepen our solidarity with all who suffer at the margins of society, thereby seeing those who are in our midst.
(This post was originally published on Bilerico in 2015.)