By Father George Rutler
Saint Paul knew from personal experience how difficult it would be for people of various cultures to understand why Jesus had to be crucified. For the more religiously disposed, whose most inspired matrix of belief was Judaism, the very suggestion of a crucified Messiah would be a scandal, while the more theoretical thinkers, none of whom were greater than the Greek philosophers, simply mocked the proposition.
Centuries later when the Koran was written, subtleties were abandoned altogether, and Sura 4 plainly says of Jesus: “They slew him not nor crucified him.” The hard trials that our world is facing right now can, in large part, be traced to this denial of the Cross and Resurrection, for it replaces Christ’s atonement for human sin with a primitive understanding of salvation.
Exactly 229 years ago this month, when the Barbary pirates were menacing ships of the newborn United States off the coasts of Tunis and Algiers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met in London with a Muslim diplomat representing the Dey of Algiers to inquire why his religion made his people so hostile to a new country that posed them no threat. They reported to Congress through a letter to John Jay, then Secretary of Foreign Affairs, the ambassador’s explanation that:
Islam was founded on the Laws of their prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to paradise.Islam believes that Jesus was raised bodily to heaven and will return to earth at the end of time. It holds that if Jesus had been crucified, he would have died, and that would have been his end. The consequences of not understanding God’s love, crowned and enthroned albeit with thorns on a cross, are vivid now in the horrors being inflicted on Christians in many places. For if God is pure will without reason, whose mercy is gratuitous and has nothing to do with any sort of moral covenant with the human race, then irrational force in his name is licit, and conscience has no role in faith. This is not the eccentric interpretation of extremists; it is the logical conclusion of the assertions in the Koran itself.
The true Word of God confounds any crude dismissal of the crucifixion as though it were a denial, and not a proof of divine power. Jesus spoke of himself as the true Temple that, if destroyed, would be raised in three days. “Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the Scripture and the word Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22).
Father Rutler is pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City.