The cross is anti-sacrificial

By Giles Fraser
April 12, 2009

This year I was made an honorary canon of the Anglican cathedral in Sefwi-Wiawso. Don't think Durham or Winchester. My adopted cathedral has no roof or doors or windows. Eagles circle overhead. Only vast clouds of incense keep the hornets at bay. And the service lasts for hours and hours, for they do things "properly" in Sefwi-Wiawso and the Holy Week services will have been a thing to behold.

But what would I have made of their Good Friday service this year? Could I really have coped with all that sacrificial imagery so commonly applied to the death of Christ in Africa and elsewhere? For this is also a region with a frightening reputation as a centre for ritual murders.

Last time I was in Wiawso, four men were arrested in a local village, not far from the cathedral, for having taken part in the ritualised murder of a disabled man, a hunchback. He was staked out and dismembered. The men involved went on to sell his body parts for large sums of money to witchdoctors. Pregnant women and children have also been targeted, with Ghanaian newspapers reporting that a human head can be traded locally for a Kia truck.

Thinking about the celebration of Holy Week in my new adopted cathedral brings home to me quite how important it is for Christians to insist upon a non-sacrificial reading of the death of Christ. For too long, Christians have put up with a theory of salvation that has at its core the idea that God requires the sacrifice of his own son so that human sin can be cancelled. "There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin," we will all sing. The fact this is a disgusting idea, and morally degenerate, is obvious to all but those indoctrinated into a very narrow reading of the cross.

No, Jesus is not a blood sacrifice to appease a vicious God. The story is not an endorsement of the idea that sacrifice brings peace with God but an attack on it. "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," Jesus insists, going on to side with the scapegoats themselves. The Gospel is clear. I am with the hunchback. I am with the one cast out. He became one with the rejected and the cast out. And thus he suffered the same fate. This is not to endorse sacrificial theology but to condemn it.

Yet despite this clear identification with the victim, much official Christianity holds on to the sacrificial reading of Christ's death. The present pope has insisted that the Eucharist must be seen as a sacrifice rather than as a meal among friends and evangelical Christians remain committed to their theory of Christ being sacrificed to offset human sin. Lord have mercy.


(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney, south London. He contributed a chapter called 'Easter's Hawks and Doves' to Ekklesia's 2005 book on the atonement, Consuming Passion: Why the killing of Jesus really matters - edited by Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley (Darton, Longman and Todd).

This article is excerpted from one that appeared on Guardian Comment-is-Free, with acknowledgment.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.