Good Friday and the Boston Marathon Bombers: The Terrorist on the Cross

Good Friday is the day in the Christian year when Christians look deeply into the mystery of the Cross of Jesus. 1 It is a solemn time for Christians, as we reflect on the suffering that Jesus endured. Some Christians recount in excruciatingly graphic detail all the various ways Jesus suffered. Other Christians reflect on those among us who are currently enduring suffering, and imagine ways we can be Jesus to them.

This year in Boston, this is also a time when Bostonians are looking back on the events of last year which powerfully impacted our city. Just over a year ago, the Boston Marathon was wrapping up, and many runners were nearing the finish line, when two explosions caused the deaths of three race spectators and the injuries of well over 200 more people.

In the days that followed that tragic act of terrorism, a manhunt was conducted in Boston and Cambridge which ended in Watertown only a few blocks from where my family and I live. 2 A suspect named Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested, and his brother Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police. Both lived here in Cambridge, went to our schools, and were friends with our young people. They were members of our community.

This Good Friday, I’m particularly struck by one perspective on the Cross which has the potential to reframe all our thoughts on justice, on terrorists, and the system of sin in which we live. And ultimately, it reveals a God who is immensely worthy of worship.

The Mystery of the Cross

Christians have been contemplating the Cross for 2,000 years. Early Christians like Peter, Paul, and John gave us powerful language and metaphors for talking about the significance of the Cross. But theologians since the New Testament times, have also developed what are called “theories of atonement.” These are more detailed attempts at explaining just how the Cross applies to humanity. One common mistake is for Christians to consider any one of these theories alone to be the full picture of the Cross’s meaning. The immense mystery of the Cross simply cannot be captured in only one way.

That said, not all atonement theories are created equal. Each tells the story of the Cross in a slightly different way, and some ways the story is told are deeply problematic theologically, socially, even psychologically. For example, a popular atonement theory depicts God as an angry father punishing his innocent son rather than taking out his rage on humanity. Jesus is portrayed as our innocent substitute who appeases his father’s wrath on our behalf. Many people are attracted to such a picture of Jesus. But this theory unnecessarily portrays God no differently than the capricious and vindictive, pagan gods. Therefore, this portrayal of the Cross leads to deep misunderstandings about God’s character. There are other atonement theories which do a better job of upholding God’s goodness, mercy, love, and justice.

The Final Scapegoat

The view of the Cross that has been capturing my imagination most lately, especially in light of the Boston bombings, has been the one attributable to René Girard. 3

Girard applies the Cross to humanity at the level of human desire. Girard builds upon the observation that human desire has a “memetic” effect—it is mimicked by others. You want something, which arouses desire for that thing in others. When humans desire the same object, subject, or resource, but such things are not plentiful enough for everyone in a society, rivalry is created. To alleviate this rivalry, thus returning society to equilibrium, the “scapegoating” mechanism is employed. “Scapegoating” here harkens back to a process of dispensing with sin detailed in the Hebrew Bible. 4 In this scapegoating process, a subject is chosen to “bear the sin” or take the blame. The larger society or mob execute judgment upon this figure to absolve themselves.

One critical piece for Christian application is this: the scapegoating mechanism fails if the victims is actually innocent. In Jesus’s case, Christians believe he died as an innocent victim, like the spotless lamb of Israelite sacrifices:

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

– Isaiah 53.7 NIV

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

‘He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.’

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’ For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

– I Peter 2.21-25 NIV

By dying as an innocent victim, Jesus subverts the system of scapegoating and throws a monkey wrench in the mechanism. His death is the ultimate condemnation of such a practice. Christians therefore are to imitate his example both in suffering innocently, as well as in refusing to scapegoat others.

When Christians contemplate the innocent Son of Man crucified by all the powers of the economic, political, military, and religious world, we can clearly see every scapegoat in human history. We can also see ourselves as both caught up in that same system as well as victimized by it. We have scapegoated others as well as having been scapegoated ourselves. Jesus calls his disciples to put scapegoating to death and to live in his scapegoat-free Kingdom.

At the cross we violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus absorbed them, died because of them, carried them into death, and rose on the third day to speak the first word of the new world: “Peace be with you.” 5

In the second century, a Jesus follower named Melito of Sardis wrote these words:

[Christ] is the Passover that is our salvation. It is he who endured every kind of suffering in all those who foreshadowed him. In Abel he was slain, in Isaac bound, in Jacob exiled, in Joseph sold, in Moses exposed to die. He was sacrificed in the Passover lamb, persecuted in David, dishonored in the prophets. It is he who was made man of the Virgin, he who was hung on the tree; it is he who was buried in the earth, raised from the dead, and taken up to the heights of heaven. He is the mute lamb, the slain lamb, the lamb born of Mary, the fair ewe. He was seized from the flock, dragged off to be slaughtered, sacrificed in the evening, and buried at night. On the tree no bone of his was broken; in the earth his body knew no decay He is the One who rose from the dead, and who raised man from the depths of the tomb. 6

The Terrorist on the Cross

When we consider just how caught up we all are in the violent, memetic system of this world—subject to the same economic, political, military, and religious powers that murdered Jesus—we are left to gaze upon the innocent man upon the Cross and praise the God who has abolished all violence and scapegoating. When we contemplate just how complicit we were in the death of Christ—not only because it was our sins he bore, but also because we have bought into the systems of power by which he was executed—how then can continue to nail “terrorists” to the cross?

“Terrorist” is the modern equivalent to what Jesus was to the Roman and Jewish powers who conspired together to have him killed. “Terrorist” is also the best possible label that can be applied to a person in our modern times to instantly transform that person from a boy from Cambridge caught up in the violent systems of the world into the perfect victim, sin-bearer, and scapegoat. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is Boston’s scapegoat. On his shoulders will sit all the fear, all the pain, all the heartache, all the outrage, and all sin we project onto him.

This Good Friday, as Christians gather together as church communities, to contemplate the mystery that is the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth, let us not forget that the Innocent One died for each and every one of us who were Not innocent. He willingly laid down his life to expose the injustice of transferring sin and guilt onto a person only to put that person to death. No amount of scapegoats will ever absolve us of sin and guilt. No amount of death and killing will ever rid our world of violence. And no amount of crucifixions will ever prevent terrorism.

It is only when we come to the God revealed in the face of the innocent Man upon the Cross—the God who reveals his unconditional forgiveness—and allow that love to transform us, will we ever see the end of violence, war, sin, guilt, and scapegoating.

It is only when we come to the God revealed in the face of the innocent Man upon the Cross—the God who would give his life to save ours—and allow that love to transform us, will we start to become the type of refuge community that this world needs.

This Good Friday, let us contemplate just how we have scapegoated our rivals, been scapegoated by our rivals, and how Jesus invites us to embody his Good News that he destroyed all scapegoating on the Cross by becoming the Final Scapegoat.

  1. There are very few events captured in the New Testament less contested than the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Even hardcore skeptics and critics of Christianity like Reza Aslan (the popular Muslim author of books on subjects including Islam and the historical Jesus) not only acknowledge the crucifixion as a historical event, but consider it the only reliable historical event.
  2. “In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.” – Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, NY: 2013), xxviii.
  3. While skeptics and critics like Aslan clearly do not ascribe to the crucifixion the religious significance Christians do, this is nevertheless solid common ground.
  4. “Mama in the Midst of a Manhunt: Putting Away My Sword and Becoming Kingdom Strong” []
  5. “Oz and the Cross: Reflections on God’s Love and the Boston Marathon Bombings” []
  6. 3. René Girard
  7. 4. Scapegoat
  8. 5. “How Does ‘Dying For Our Sins’ Work?” by Brian Zahnd
  9. 6. “On the Passover” – St. Melito of Sardis
  10. Image attribution: Ceccarelli, Naddo, 14th cent.. Crucified Christ with the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved April 18, 2014]. Original source: