Good Friday 2013
Just some thoughts about the one day of the year that continues to be problematic for the life of the Church and the World. Tradition has it that we read the Passion according to the Gospel of John on Good Friday. And on Palm Sunday we read the passions according to Matthew, Mark and Luke in a three year rotation. It is long considered that the passion narratives in all four gospels were among the first, if not the first, Christian writings after, of course, Paul’s letters which precede all the gospels in what has come to be accepted as “final form.”
I say problematic because these four passion narratives, and how they have been interpreted, especially on Good Friday, have been used to foster anti-Semitism [ultimately leading to the Holocaust and the kind of resistance to the modern state of Israel we still experience today], and at the same time have left much of western Christianity, particularly in its more evangelical forms, with a reductionist view of just how it is that the cross is central to Christian faith, life and witness. That reductionist view, of course, is that “Jesus died for our sins,” a view that often leads to assertions that we must share in the sufferings of Christ – an assertion that has had disastrous results for countless persons who have been urged to patiently accept child abuse, spousal abuse, clergy abuse, political abuse, and bullying and abuse of any kind.
Having recently spent a full afternoon at the National Holocaust Museum, I had plenty of time to reflect on my lifetime engagement in Christian-Jewish dialogue. It is one of the great tragedies of the Church that although Jesus was, is and remains a Jew, that Good Friday has been used to accuse the Jews of killing Jesus – all Jews for all time. The direct result of such proclamation has been pogroms, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, ghettoization, Holy Week murder and persecution of Jews, all setting what appeared to be a perfect justification for the Nazi Holocaust’s attempt to exterminate every living Jew on earth.
The charge that “the Jews killed Jesus” can be derived from the passion narratives if one fails to grasp the setting in which the crucifixion took place in first century Israel. The region, like most of the Mediterranean and beyond, was under the military occupation and rule of Rome. Like all oppressors, the Romans “appointed” certain leaders in the Jewish community [and all communities throughout the Empire] to enforce the rule of Roman law – which leaders happened to be primarily the Temple priesthood and Jerusalem aristocracy. The Nazis would use the same strategy in the camps and ghettos. It does not help that the New Testament narratives refer to these appointed leaders [seen by many as collaborators, yet one must be sympathetic to the bind they found themselves in] simply as Judeans [literally citizens of the region of Judea, not all of whom were even Jewish], and that translations of the New Testament Koine Greek shortens it simply to “the Jews.” The Jews did not kill Jesus. Period.
Only Rome had the power and authority to crucify – to order and carry out capital punishment, or state sponsored execution. What is described in the passion narratives, therefore, is a highly charged and complex political event taking place at the busiest time of year in Jerusalem, the time of the Passover. As a result of identifying this tiny group of appointed leaders as “the Jews” led early Christian preaching and apologetics to lay the charge of killing Jesus to the Jewish people at large. Which is ironic, since it is often now argued by scholars of all stripes that Judaism as we know it today did not actually exist at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee, but rather like Christianity itself, grew out of and after the crisis of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 CE [common era]. And which is tragic because I know faithful Jews of my own generation who grew up in cities and communities in the United States in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s who every Holy Week had to take cover or be chased down by Christian hooligans and beaten up, or worse, for having “killed our Jesus.” It was not until 1963 and the Second Vatican Council that the Church in Rome finally renounced the charge of Deicide [killing God in Christ], and the protestant denominations have been playing catch-up ever since.
Jesus of Nazareth was killed by Rome as an example to the rest of the citizens of Judea and Galilee: do not even think of challenging the power structures of the Empire [ie a social prophet in the tradition of the earlier Old Testament prophets], and do not even think of initiating a movement as was rapidly growing around Jesus, most specifically around radically inclusive meal practices which formed the locus of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministries. Any movement that challenged the authority of the Empire and subverted accepted social boundaries was to be stopped, quashed, before it could gain any traction or attraction. Little did Pilate, Herod or even Caesar imagine that this one execution among thousands would galvanize the movement, not halt it, and that the movement itself would one day become The Empire [which would become a problem for the Church that we are still trying to work our way out of].
As to the kind of Atonement theology that says, “Jesus died for our sins,” there are many models of interpretation of what the crucifixion means for us, none of which has ever settled into becoming anything like a doctrine of the Christian faith. When one tries to honestly answer the question, “Why was Jesus killed?” the historical answer has to be because he was indeed a social critic or prophet, and he was a movement initiator, and more importantly a passionate advocate for God’s passion for justice, and a radical critic of the system of domination [briefly sketched out above] who had gathered a growing community of followers. There were other charismatic leaders, many of whom were advocating armed revolt. Jesus may have looked like a similar threat, but his equal passion for God’s reconciling love for all humanity sets him apart – and of course in modern times has been the role model for non-violent resistance movements as initiated by Ghandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to name a few.
Beyond the historical answer, however, one is hard pressed to find a single interpretation of the Cross among New Testament writers, let alone church theorists throughout the past 2000 years. Some stay close to the historical answer – the authorities and their agents rejected Jesus and killed him, but God vindicated him by raising him to life again – the authorities say no, God says “Yes!” Another New Testament interpretation says that the Cross and Resurrection [properly understood as one continuous event, not two separate events] defeated the Powers That Be – described as “principalities and powers,” or “the prince of the power of the air,” and other such ancient locutions. These “powers” extend beyond Rome and Jerusalem, of which they are just functionaries. The Cross in this interpretation exposes the domination system that kills Jesus as ultimately morally and literally bankrupt. The idea being, why would one devote oneself to this and similar domination systems if in the end they are exposed as being morally bankrupt?
The next two New Testament views are similar – The Cross reveals “the way,” understood as the way of internal and spiritual transformation that is at the heart of nearly all religions throughout history. And this Way is grounded in the depth of God’s profound Love for us that he would send a Son, or become incarnate as one of us himself, to embody the way that is truly “The Way” that reflects God’s own character and passion which is grounded in love, justice for all people, and self-giving.
This leads naturally to the sacrificial understanding, “Jesus died for our sins.” Although this view of The Cross did not assume its fully realized form until about 900 years ago, it has become the dominant and most emphasized view in popular Christianity. It depends on seeing “the work of Jesus,” or the life of Jesus as primarily set in a framework of sin, guilt and forgiveness – as opposed to seeing the work of Jesus as being primarily about healing, teaching, social prophecy and as the initiator of a movement within Judaism [importantly, not as “founder” of Christianity, which some like to attribute largely to Paul, Peter, and other early followers of the Jesus movement].
The idea, of course, is that we have all sinned against God and are guilty. At the time, the Jerusalem Temple and its priesthood held a monopoly on how to seek forgiveness – through appointed sacrifices in the Temple. So God, the model goes, provides the perfect sacrifice for all our sins in the person of Jesus. Now forgiveness and access to the presence of God is possible, but only for those who believe that Jesus died for our sins.
This has always struck me as odd for several reasons. First, it seems to place a limitation on God’s forgiveness – God can forgive only if an adequate sacrifice is made. Which implies that Jesus did not die on the cross for what he was doing, but rather it was part of a plan, God’s plan. To kill one’s own Son? To kill oneself [understanding Jesus as God incarnate]? And that God’s forgiveness is somehow limited only to those who “believe,” however that is to be understood.veness is somehow limited only to those who "ess persons who have been urged to patiently accept child abuse, spousal abu
Further, at the time, “Jesus died for our sins,” meant something entirely different – it meant that the Temple’s monopoly on forgiveness and access to God has been superceded, circumvented, denied its intrinsic power over the people of God. It was an anti-Temple statement. It was a subversion of the sacrificial system itself. It meant, in effect, that access to God and God’s forgiveness is taken care of through the life, death AND resurrection of Jesus, with emphasis on ‘the life.’ That is, there is access apart from the Temple sacrificial system – access, as Jesus’ life at mealtimes indicates, which is open to all persons at all time. “Jesus died for our sins” makes the positive assertion that such access has come at a cost – a dear cost to God and to all humanity. Yet, how odd it is, then, that the religious movement that makes the assertion that “Jesus died for our sins” would within four hundred years would claim for itself a monopoly on grace, forgiveness and access to God, and today tries to make the case that it, the Church, has paid this costliness. How offensive and disappointing that must be to God! Such hubris, however, appears to be the hallmark of our time throughout all dimensions of our common life.
Finally, purveyors of this view see the work of the cross as forgiveness for “my sins,” as opposed to “our sins.” It devolves very quickly into a very individualistic piety. Whereas on the Cross the work of Jesus is meant to free us from all systems that mean to enslave us [thus the intrinsic Passover imagery associated with Easter], all systems of domination that mean to exert a monopoly on God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and God’s Way. Which is to say, to believe in the Cross of Christ, to accept it as saving or atoning at all, is to accept it on behalf of all humankind which means to gather all creaturely beings into a commonwealth of love through the overcoming of sin in all of its communal dimensions – power structures that mean to dominate, control and otherwise monopolize access to God and God’s Way.
The very heart of Jesus life, death and resurrection, is teaching, healing, and social criticism that exposes the bankruptcy of all domination systems that seek to exert a monopoly on access to God, God’s forgiveness and love – that is, a life devoted to Christ’s own reconciling work of the radical acceptance of all people at his table without prerequisites. Jesus does not ask anyone for their resume or transcript – he simply says follow me. Good Friday is Good because of this fact, and the fact that he is risen, he is present to all persons in all places at all times. One wonders how Holy Week and Good Friday might be re-visioned so that it might put the emphasis on the Good? The Cross is central to Christian faith because it failed! It failed to stop the man and it failed to stop the movement he began. Despite losing sight of its precious and costly origins, there are quarters of the Church in which the good work begun on the cross continues to this day. How fortunate are those who happen upon a Christian community that sees the Goodness of Good Friday and follows in the Way of Jesus in embodying the character and love of God, continuing his work of reconciliation in the world. Amen.