My family and I spent last week at Outlaw Ranch, a camp in the Black Hills operated by the nonprofit organization Lutherans Outdoors. It’s a marvelous place, with spirit-filled worship (often around a campfire), enthusiastic college-age counselors who take care of your kids for extended periods of time, a musical artist-in-residence, and adult learning sessions on timely issues facing the faithful. The outdoor element is also there for the experiencing, in activities such as horseback riding, canoeing, and hiking.
On the second or third night, the staff put on a peripatetic passion play. Making full use of Outlaw’s spectacular natural setting, we reenacted key moments in the life of Christ, beginning with his humble birth, continuing with baptism in the Jordan River, and on through ministry, arrest, crucifixion − and ultimate resurrection. The play was full of memorable moments, such as standing in a crowd yelling “Crucify him!” as I craned my neck upward to see Pontius Pilate on the deck above us. He washed his hands of the matter, then dumped the water in his bowl down toward us.
At one point in the play, the narrator makes the assertion “Jesus was an outlaw.” Immediately upon hearing this, my mental wheels started turning at swifter speed. Aha, I thought, now I’m starting to see why the camp is called Outlaw Ranch. It’s not just the location in the Black Hills, an area sacred to the Sioux that later became associated with white land grabs and colorful Old West characters like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. It’s the fact − still scandalous after two thousand years − that the founder of the Christian faith, the author (many of us believe) of our salvation, was condemned as a criminal and put to death on a cross, the most shameful death the Roman world could devise.
As a result of the crucifixion, and the resurrection that followed, humans have been set free in a way that gives the word “outlaw” yet another level of meaning. In a sense, Jesus came to perfect the law, but even more fundamentally, one who is in Christ is set free from the law to be a new creation (Galatians 3: 19-25; Romans 8: 1-4). In other words, Jesus was an outlaw in more ways than one.