The Crucifixion as Unity

The bishops of the Church of England could not have chosen a more ironic day than the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity to release a statement which failed to open up the possibility of allowing same-sex marriages to be affirmed by that church, after six years of the latest round of discussions on the topic. This “issue” has been one of the most divisive conflicts within the universal church in both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; yet, as Rowan Williams points out, the fact this has become such a flashpoint of disagreement should be cause for the church to consider more carefully its attitudes towards sex and sexuality.

The question posed is whether we have tried to split theological “knowledge” or doctrine from everybody’s existence as diverse individuals. How much of the debate around sexuality (and queer identity in general) is purely intellectual and ignores the reality that we are integrated bodily, spiritual, and mental beings? I have not known many fundamentalists come to see same-sex relationships as fruitful by being persuaded they are wrong about the translations of specific greek words in the so-called “clobber passages”. I have not known many biblical literalists to be persuaded that trans people are a valued and affirmed part of God’s creation from a closer reading of Genesis. This is not to deny the reality of the good work of academic scholarship, but to question whether we, as queer and allied Christians, are engaging in this debate in ways which legitimise our bodies and identities being questioned and critiqued in the name of a false unity (namely white cisheteronormativity).

What follows is a reading of the crucifixion that presents a different, if challenging, view of unity. Jesus’ life is characterised by his desire to be at the table of all God’s children. He sits with prostitutes, but also with pharisees. In this sense he desires them to see the rule of God in their midst. This rule desires the flourishing of all people in mutual harmony - namely it desires unity. But what is the consequence of Jesus’ life, if not the crucifixion? The reality of advocating for justice and inclusion in a fallen world is persecution. The reality of Jesus having conviction in his own identity as messiah means he must face the reality of death (and some of his harshest rebuke is saved for Peter, when he tries to tempt Jesus away from this in Mark 8:33). Notice also that the pharisees continually believe they have the correct “interpretation” of scripture and the messiah, despite being presented with the reality of Jesus’ identity.

While on the cross, in some of the most unbelievable words of the whole Bible, Jesus asks “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus, fulfilling the law and bringing in the kingdom, is able to recognise the ways people have deceived themselves and denied the true messiah. Our forgiveness of others liberates us, because for as long as we hold on to our bitterness about how they have treated us we are allowing them to retain control over us. Jesus refuses to let others’ actions and their threats define him because only the Father, who loves him, can do that - even at the point of facing the most severe persecution and torture. As hard as it is, we are called to model this kind of grace. We are called to be so grounded in the knowledge that God deeply loves, desires, and likes us, that we are enabled to stand for a unity which does not look like an Orwellian nightmare of everyone thinking the exact same, but reflects the beautiful diversity of God’s creation. People will fight this vision of unity (it threatens those with power), but our response must be that of forgiveness and not to become engaged in a debate (which will always be fought on the oppressors’ terms) that legitimises queer people being turned into questions not humans. The cross shatters the worldview of the Roman centurion (Mark 15:39) in ways that an academic debate would not - dare we to be vulnerable and change others’ hearts with our unashamed existence and forgiveness not words?

Written by Edmund Milwain. Edmund (he/they) is a recent Durham University graduate in Mathematics, who now works as a student worker for a church.