Monday Random Song: “I Dreamed I Drove the Nails”

Oh, right, I have a blog? Apologies, constant readers, for the infrequent posting. I’ve been keeping my number-one resolution for 2013 to re-start work on the Endless Novel, as well as writing the occasional schmaltzy poem and nurturing the Young Master.

Since traditional children’s music makes me think of murderous clowns, I lean heavily on the Episcopal hymnal and Christian pop songs to entertain us while we are working on our pureed peas. Often, I wind up pondering and/or questioning the theology behind the catchy lyrics. From time to time, I will share these reflections with you, my blog followers. (You’ll have to get your own baby food, though. I recommend Earth’s Best chicken mango risotto.)

Today’s song is the Southern Gospel classic “I Dreamed I Drove the Nails“, performed in this YouTube clip by Greg Treadway and Andy Price. In it, the speaker recounts his vivid dream of crucifying Christ, which brought home to him how great a sacrifice Jesus made for his sins. Episcopalians will be familiar with this theme from the Lenten hymn “O Sacred Head“.

I’ve always struggled with this thought-experiment of identifying with Christ’s killers. I can appreciate the need to reflect on the seriousness of my sins and the magnitude of God’s mercy. This terrible limit case — God would even forgive us for killing Jesus — shows that no sin is beyond repentance. Such a hope can lead us out of self-involved despair and into true transformation.

On the other hand, I grew up in a home where emotional manipulation reigned, where I as a child was blamed for an adult’s depression and psychosomatic illnesses, in order to control my behavior and reinforce my gratitude for her so-called unselfish love. It is hard to feel the difference, sometimes, between “I Dreamed I Drove the Nails” and the stereotypical “guilt trip”. Why does God’s goodness require my self-abasement as contrast?

As I have become more attuned to abuses of power within Christianity, my understanding of Jesus has become more this-worldly and political. Now, songs like the ones above also make me wonder: Shouldn’t we focus on our actual sins and their real victims instead of a thought-experiment about something that never literally happened?

If the “real” wounded party is Christ, and lucky us, he forgives us, we may neglect making amends in the real world. This thought-experiment carries the potential for self-aggrandizing, self-pitying guilt that puts the sinner rather than the victim at the center of the story. Identification with the perpetrator then becomes a dysfunctional way to cement the Christian community’s bonds, like a gang where one has to murder someone to be a member.

Why not imagine one’s self into other roles in the story, like Veronica and Simon who tried to help, or Peter who cut off the soldier’s ear? Or, maybe one hasn’t actually done anything nearly as bad as crucifying Christ. “Sin inflation” creates a false moral equivalence that prevents the church from taking abuse seriously. It instills excessive guilt in people who then can’t speak up about wrongs done to them.

As I remember it, St. Paul exhorts us to imagine ourselves as crucified with Christ, a lot more than he recommends the perspective of the crucifiers. And when he does the latter, it’s because he actually did persecute and kill Christians, and was forgiven by his human victim, Stephen, not only by God.

I would love to hear from my readers about where the “I crucified Christ” trope originated. Is it Biblical? Where do you find support for it in Scripture?

6 comments on “Monday Random Song: “I Dreamed I Drove the Nails”

  1. Excellent essay! Another memorable hymn on this theme is “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” I have been pondering these same questions as I work on the text for a book based on the gay Passion paintings of Doug Blanchard.

    The idea of meditating on “I crucified Christ” began to develop around the 9th – 10th centuries when the church joined forces with political and military powers. Armies of the Holy Roman Empire united most of western Europe with bloody military campaigns, imposing Roman Catholicism on the people that they conquered. The church began urging people to imagine themselves at the foot of the cross and contemplate Christ’s agony as he was killed to atone for their particular sins.

    Surprisingly the dead Jesus on the cross was not depicted by artists for a millennium after he died. The mainstream explanation is that early Christians were too ashamed and afraid to show it, but I discovered a much better interpretation in the book “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire” by Rita Nakashima Brock And Rebecca Ann Parker.

    For a thousand years Christian art celebrated Jesus as a good shepherd or a ruler over God’s bountiful creation. The risen Christ brought life and abundance to the earthly paradise where people lived. The early church was also relatively tolerant of homosexuality. More info in this excellent excerpt from Saving Paradise:

    Personally I find that identifying with those who crucified Christ can help me in the difficult journey of developing compassion for people who advocate violence today, such as those who want unlimited access to assault rifles and other guns.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Great insights, Kitt, thank you. Identifying with the crucifiers is a complex notion with good and bad potential uses. After I wrote the original post, I was thinking that there is some value in not noticing degrees of sin — so that we don’t aggrandize ourselves at someone else’s expense, like the Pharisee and the tax collector — “Thank you God, at least I’m not as bad as THAT guy!” Occasionally, for humility’s sake, perhaps we should all imagine ourselves as capable of the worst, but at the same time, watching out for moral equivalence that minimizes the greatest sins. That’s why I love your last paragraph about finding empathy for those who advocate violence.

    Could you expand on the causal connection between the imperial conquests and the church urging people to contemplate Christ’s agony? I wasn’t clear on the logic there.

  3. It’s hard for me to put this into words. I’d say it is easier to control people who feel worthless. Part of the colonization process is making oppressed people feel unworthy and sinful. When they spend a lot of time blaming themselves for Christ’s death, they may become too dejected to fight back against oppressors. There may be some parallels to contemporary churches that use this atonement theology to control members.

  4. Jendi Reiter says:

    On the contrary, I think you worded this extremely well! This has been exactly my concern lately about how Christianity conceptualizes sin. If we’re not seeing the connection between sin and domination, we no longer have the same priorities as Jesus did.

  5. Don says:

    Trope is from “it was my sins that put Jesus on the Cross” concept.

  6. I got curious so I’ve been looking for the Biblical basis for this kind of theology as you requested. I found some scriptures used to justify it at Wikipedia under “Penal Substitution,” which is the name for a type of atonement theology.

    I’d say it’s a stretch to use these to imply that we bear personal responsibility for killing Jesus with our sins. But here are a few:

    Isaiah 53:4-6, 10, 11 – “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed…”

    2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (RSV)

    You can read more scriptures and explanation at this link:

    An excellent book that specifically critiques the penal substitution theology and offers an alternative view is “ From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ” by Patrick Cheng.

    You probably read excerpts from it at the Jesus in Love Blog.

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