I have approached Holy Week with a shiver of dread. And I have not been alone. You and I grew up under the unhelpful (but widely known) doctrine formulated by 12th century Anselm of Canterbury that came to be known as "substitutionary atonement." Anselm taught that God was so angry at humanity for disobeying “his” ordained order, he sent his son Jesus to die in our place, paying the price of our sin. It’s hard not to feel guilty when centuries of blame have been heaped on our heads.
Sadly, being baptized into the Christian faith at age 8 and trying ever after to do the right thing never discharged my guilt for “killing” Jesus. I spent years trying to equal his sacrifice by laying down my own life for others. After all, “A good shepherd would die for the sheep.”
Just a century after Anselm a number of theologians began to argue persuasively against this one theory. Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr’s favorite is John Duns Scotus whose argument Rohr summarizes this way: “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity….he came to change humanity’s mind about God.” [from Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis Assisi] Two contemporary theologians come immediately to mind: Marcus Borg, who lists five interpretations of the cross in The Heart of Christianity (2004), and Rita N. Brock and Rebecca Parker in Proverbs of Ashes (2008). There are many others, including early 20th century Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch who influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu.
I needed to get this doctrine straight. Drawn to seminary in 1996, I met Dr. Fran Ferder, my first theologian/professor at Seattle University, who said categorically, “You have to have a life before you can lay it down.” I was in my early fifties, and this was the first time I had heard such a convincing truth. I was hooked, because I had spent most of my professional years empowering adolescents and not myself. After years of deference and silent misery I began to learn how to speak up for myself. Rebecca Parker affirms, “We need a God Who delights in revolutionary disobedience and spirited protest.” [p. 31]
Parker explains, “The dynamic of dominance and submission in human relations is the heart of sin,” not a list of forbidden pleasures, nor groveling before God in our unworthiness.  We are called to resist injustice and to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. This is “Old” Testament stuff! The virtue of our resistance, whatever its outcome, lies in revealing the bankruptcy of power systems as we work together to achieve triumph of the human spirit for everyone.
I don’t squirm much during Holy Week any more. I stand attentive at each waypoint of the journey, at the sharing of bread and wine, in the garden at Jesus’ arrest, through his trial and his mistreatment, full of empathy and grief that one so innocent had to go this far to reveal that the world’s powers oppose God’s plans for Creation. God did not intend us to judge each other, weigh our sins and assign punishment. God intends for us to love as God loves.
Borg asserts, “I do have faith in the cross as a trustworthy disclosure of the evil of the domination system, as the exposure of the defeat of the powers, as the revelation of the ‘way’ or ‘path’ of transformation, as the revelation of God’s love for us, and as the proclamation of radical grace. I have faith in the cross as all of those things.” Rohr says simply, “God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.”
As late as it may seem for us to learn new interpretations of the cross, they revolutionize our understanding of what God asks of us. The way forward is to be just, kind and merciful in our walk with God. Most important, it is my way forward, since I have taken up my life and choose well when and how to lay it down.