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Robert P. George on the Passion & Death of Christ
The Passion of the Christ has revived discussion of the question: “Who killed Christ?” Speaking for myself, I begin with a different question: “Who is Christ?” It is the answer to this second question, really, that determines for me the answer to the first.
Jesus himself put the question to his disciples: “Who do men say that I am?” They answered: “Some say John the Baptist; some Elijah; some the Prophet.” Jesus then said: “And who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Cf. Matt. 16:13–16.) I have thought about this, and prayed about this, and argued with myself about this, and reached the same conclusion Peter reached.
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He was sent by his Father as our Savior to share in our humanity, to suffer and die in a supreme act of self-sacrificial love in atonement for sins, and to be raised up to glory, making possible for us resurrection, salvation, and sharing in the divine life of the triune God.
So having come to faith in Christ, I approach the question of responsibility for his death from the perspective of faith. And from that perspective, the answer to the question “Who killed Christ?” is clear, all too clear for my own comfort. I did it. I am the one responsible. It was not “the Jews,” or even “the Romans.” It was not “the religious leaders of the time.” It was not Pontius Pilate. It was not the crowd, or any of the historical figures in the dramatic account presented in the Gospels.
It was for my sins that the Son of God suffered and died. It was for my selfishness, my pride, my greed, my lusts, my covetousness, my self-indulgence, my injustices, my failures of courage and of love. I hear St. Francis of Assisi talking to me when he says: “It is you who have crucified him and crucify him still when you delight in your vices and sins.” Yes, it is true. I am the one. I am responsible. And I am sorry.
Someone might say, “Well, even from a Christian vantage point, it’s not just you; all are sinners, and Christ died for all; so the responsibility is shared by all.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (in the context of rejecting the allegation of Jewish guilt for the crucifixion) says: “All sinners were the authors and ministers of Christ’s passion.” Well, yes, that’s true. I certainly don’t deny it. But this theological truth is easily misunderstood.
The guilt is not collective, even when we take the collectivity to be the whole of mankind. Sins are committed by individuals, though individuals can conspire to create sinful institutions and social structures. So my guilt is not reduced or diluted by what I accept as the theological fact that “all sinners are authors of Christ’s Passion.” In gazing upon the suffering Christ, it is not other people’s sins with which I am confronted; it is my sins.
In the liturgical commemoration of Christ’s passion in Holy Week, the Catholic Church has found a way of confronting the faithful vividly with the personal and existential truth of the matter. There is a responsive reading of the Gospel account of the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. A lector serves as narrator. The priest reads the words of Jesus. A deacon or the lector reads the words of Herod, Pontius Pilate, and other individuals in the story. And the congregation reads the words of the crowd.
I will tell you candidly that I dread this service. I have to drag myself to it. The reason I dread it is that I am required to confront that very personal and existential question. Nothing could be more painful. And it is painful because this is not a play. I am not there as an actor playing a role or a part. The liturgical context, from the point of view of faith, makes it real, not pretend, not make-believe. It brings out the truth of the matter.
What I dread are two words that I am required to speak. And I dread them, because they leave me in no doubt as to the answer to the personal and existential question: “Who killed Christ?” They come after Pilate has agreed to release the criminal Barabbas at the crowd’s demand. Pilate then asks: “What would you have me do with Jesus of Nazareth?” And we say—I say—“Crucify him.”
Yes, I say it. I am the one calling for his death—not as an actor in a play, but as my very self—a real-life sinner rendered transparent to myself in the existential reality of the liturgy. In that moment, as a worshiping Christian, I am made to speak the truth about myself, my guilt, my need for repentance and forgiveness. There and then, I validate the charge that St. Francis confronts me with: “It is you who have crucified him.” Yes, it is I.
“I Did It” is part of an address Prof. George delivered at a forum on The Passion of the Christ held at Princeton University.
Robert P. George , a Roman Catholic, is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and The Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Books). He is a Senior Editor of Touchstone.