The story of a passion occupies the center of the Christian faith: the story of the betrayed, renounced, tortured, crucified Christ. No other religion has a tortured figure at its center. This has provoked the abhorrence of many aesthetes, from Cicero to Goethe, but it has also evoked the sympathy of empathetic people. The powerlessness and abandonment of the crucified Christ stirs our compassion, just as does the helpless child in the manger. What does the crucified Christ have to do with our topic? Does his torture justify the torture of Christians or the torture of Christianity's enemies here on earth or : particularly : in hell? Does the tortured Christ signify the end of all torture because he is the end of every religious or secular justification for torture?
Pilate "has Jesus flogged," as Matthew, Mark, and John tersely put it in their stories of the Passion. The commentaries remark: "Flogging was one of the most serious punishments among the Jews. The wrongdoer was bound naked to a pole and was beaten with a bent whip by a court servant exercising all his strength. The Jews never allowed the number of lashes to exceed thirty-nine; Romans set no limits." Why did they carry out such beatings before the execution? Apparently it was meant to break the victims' physical and mental resistance and perhaps also to weaken them in order to shorten their death agony.
The Gospels tell the story of Christ's Passion in great detail, but show neither masochistic delight in suffering nor strive to awaken pity. They tell the story as God's story: God with us, accompanying us in our suffering and in our torments; God for us, inasmuch as we are guilty. They speak of the solidarity of the incarnate God who is with us to the death, and tell also of God our representative, who takes our place.
Reading the story of Christ's Passion from this point of view, we discover his progressive self-emptying, which involves a loss of human and then also of divine relationships. His male disciples flee after his arrest by the Romans, one of them betrays him, another denies him, the rest distance themselves from him. All of this meant a loss of identity as master and teacher.
Jesus was crucified "outside the gates" of the holy city. The Romans crucified him as an enemy of the Imperium Romanum and therefore : according to their understanding : as an enemy of the human race (this was a pretext also used later to persecute Christians). This meant a loss of identity as a person. He died with the shout, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
The story of the Passion is the story of Christ emptying himself to the depths of misery. If this Christ is not just any person among many others, but rather the Messiah, Israel's liberator and the redeemer of the human race, then his story expresses first of all God's solidarity with all victims of violence and torture: Christ's cross stands among the countless crosses which line the ways of the powerful and violent, from Spartacus to the concentration camps. His suffering does not rob dignity from the suffering of others. Rather, his suffering takes its place fraternally alongside theirs as a symbol of the fact that God participates in our suffering and bears our pain. Among the countless, anonymous victims of torture, the "suffering servant of God" is always to be found. They are his comrades in suffering because he became one of them in his suffering. The tortured Christ looks at us with the eyes of one who has suffered torture. This is what the fifty-nine-year-old Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of San Salvador discovered: "In the eyes of his tortured, oppressed people he saw the disfigured countenance of the crucified God."
The crucified Jesus became the brother of all crucified people. That is the way in which he is the Son of Man and the redeemer of humankind. He does not help us through miracles by virtue of his superior powers, but rather through his wounds on the strength of his very powerlessness: "Only the suffering God can help," wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Gestapo cell, recognizing Christ as his brother in his moment of need. The suffering God helps through his communion with the victims of torture: "If I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there." Certainly not every victim of torture feels this subjectively, not even Christians. Without any doubt, the "dark night of the soul" also descends on the torture chambers and on the solitary confinement cells. Sometimes all direction is lost in the darkness, all feeling dried up. But objectively, the tortured Christ is present in all victims of torture and the godforsaken Christ is present in those forsaken by God. This brings us back to the topic of hell. Formerly the Apostles' Creed read "he descended to hell, on the third day he rose from the dead...." When and how did Christ experience hell? According to an ancient interpretation, he suffered hell after his death, when he descended to the underworld of the dead in order to preach the gospel of redemption to them. Luther thought that Christ experienced hell in dying, between Gethsemane and Golgotha, when he tasted the bitterness of abandonment by God.
Both explanations complement each other: the dying Christ, betrayed, abandoned, tortured, lonely, afraid, experienced in his own body and in his own soul that which we call "hell." The Christ who went to the dead and took salvation to them has been resurrected to eternal life. Therefore not only "death" has been swallowed up by victory: hell, too, has been robbed of its sting.
What we experience as "hell" has been transformed objectively since Christ;s descent into hell. There is someone who brought hope into hell: Dante has been disproved. There is someone who has opened up hell's gates and led out the dead, as is illustrated by everty Easter icon in the Orthodox churches. If "hell" is the place where God's agandonment is located, ever since Christ's descent into hell it has ceased to exist. If devilish tormentors once triumphed in hell over human beings, they have been robbed of their victory ever since the resurrection of the dead Christ. "Ido believe in hell," said Berdyayev, "but I don't believe there is anyone in there." I say that because Christ was in hell, no one in hell can be without hope. In that case, "hell"can no longer mean for the Christian faith what it once was, namely, an everlasting religious torture chamber. Its gats are open, its walls are shattered, the trumpet blast of liberation is already resounding in it. Whoever clings to Christ neither fears "hell" nor threatens others with hell's torture. Believers will tell whoever still feels bound to speak of hell for biblical reasons: "Where, O hell is your victory?! Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Cor. 15:57)
The Resurrected Christ Is the Judge of All Torturers
In former times, torture took place publicly and the corpses were left lying in the open air as a deterrent. Today, torture takes place secretly, behind closed doors, and the corpses "disappear"; they are buried or burned so that no one can find traces of them nor remember their names. The murderers want to avoid all possibility of future accusation and prosecution. This is why it has been so difficult to find traces of the disappeared in Argentina and Chile. Already at the end of the Second World War, Himmler had concentration camp victims dug up again and the corpses burned in order to obliterate their traces.
"Resurrection" also means that the dead return, those who lived in the past rise up, and the nameless are called by name. Judgment consists in this: the murderers will not triumph over their victims in the end and torturers will be called to account for their actions. Even people who no longer believe in a personal God have this longing for justice and understand that resurrection means that the dead will experience justice. For Christians, the resurrected Christ is the Firstborn in the resurrection of the dead, the leader, and therefore also the initiator of divine judgment on torturers and murderers. It is understandable that the victims and their descendants say, "After Auschwitz we can no longer speak of God." But the perpetrators and their descendants should rather say, "We must talk about God after Auschwitz because we stand under his judgment." To claim "God is dead" in such a situation is merely an attempt to avoid responsibility. God ensures justice for the victims of violence and God judges the perpetrators of violence. Otherwise it would be impossible for a world of peace ever to become reality.
In his book The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal reports that as a prisoner in a concentration camp, he was called to the deathbed of a SS man who wanted to confess to him as a Jew that he had participated in mass shootings and burnings of Jews. Wiesenthal was unable to speak and left in silence, but the question stayed with him. His story has been published together with the answers of many European politicians, philosophers, and theologians. They make it clear that no one can forgive a guilty person in the name of his dead victims. It is furthermore clear that there can be no reparation for such a past. In order for someone to be able to live at all burdened by such guilt, atonement is necessary. Without forgiveness of guilt, those who acknowledge their guilt cannot live, for they lose their entire self-respect. There can be no forgiveness of guilt without atonement, yet atonement is not a human possibility. No human being could possibly atone for such injustice, but can God provide atonement?
The sacrifice for atonement was part of the old covenant. God provided a scapegoat so that the sins of the people could be transferred onto the animal and carried off into the desert, away from the people. In the Jerusalem temple there were equivalent rituals of atonement. The prophet Isaiah (chapter 53) had his vision of the suffering servant of God, who takes away the sins of the people. In these examples it is always God himself who has mercy on the sinners and carries their guilt away. God himself is the atonement for the people.
How does this occur? God transforms human guilt into divine suffering by "bearing" human guilt. This is what the new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ is about. Through his Passion and his death on the cross, Christ becomes not only the brother of the victims but also the vicarious atonement for the perpetrators. "You who bear the sins of the world, have mercy upon us." This prayer joins us to all perpetrators and brings us into the sphere of divine mercy. Mercy is a kind of love that overcomes its own injuries, that bears the suffering produced by guilt, and that steadfastly holds on to the object of its love.
Victims of injustice have a long memory, for the traces of their suffering are deeply engraved. Perpetrators have short memories: they do not know and do not wish to know what they have done. They depend on the victims if they are to be converted from death into life. One cannot offer one's victims reconciliation, but one can cooperate in setting signs of atonement through service for peace, working toward recovering one's self-respect.
If Christ is the torturers' judge, they are confronted in him with a victim of torture. In the hour of truth, all masks fall and the torturers come to know themselves as they really are. Their judgment consists of this. If Christ is their judge, then they are faced with him "who bears the sins of the world." This is the hour of justice that creates new life. What can we do for torturers? To be honest, nothing at all. We can leave them alone in silence and relinquish them to God's wrath. We can make them aware of the fact that Christ, whom they have tortured and murdered in their victims, is their divine judge. We can include them in this prayer: "You who bear the sins of the world, have mercy upon us." To put it simply, we must leave them to God and should play "god" toward them neither for good nor for evil. To condemn them or to forgive them is not our task.
When injustice occurs massively, when no alternatives seem to be in sight, a sense of familiarity sets in, both in the minds of the victims and of the perpetrators. How can we recover from this apathetic state, which is one of our cultural ills? I remember how I always became painfully aware of the barbed wire in POW camp when a group of prisoners was allowed to return home. The breath of freedom that blew into camp on those occasions made us quite ill. When freedom is near, our chains begin to chafe. When hunger and thirst for righteousness are awakened in us, we no longer want to accept injustice but rather fight against it. Let us, therefore, strengthen our will to live our own lives and promote the lives of other people, the life of all of creation. In doing this we will find that our resistance against torture will grow. Let us hunger and thirst for righteousness and teach others to do so as well. Then injustice will be perceived as such, exposed and rejected.