When I was a teenager, I used to go to the community Good Friday service every year. Back then, all the stores downtown were closed from noon until 3:00 and during that time crowds of people would attend this service to hear local pastors preach on the “seven last words of Christ.”
I liked these services. But even though I was a pretty orthodox Christian, I did have questions. The reason for the crucifixion of Jesus – as explained by the church at that time – just didn’t make sense to me. Why would God – who was supposed to be almighty and good – need to send his son (it was all male language back then) to be tortured and killed? It just didn’t seem to be a good use of omnipotent power. But that was the church’s story and it wasn’t prudent to ask questions.
Much later, after years of ministry, the questions came back with a vengeance. When I came to the conclusion that Christianity isn’t the only way of thinking/believing about the Divine, I couldn’t continue to buy (or preach) the party line. If non-Christians weren’t going be rejected by God, then why in heaven’s name did Jesus have to die ? I mean, if I were Jesus, I’d be really pissed.
Thankfully, about the same time I discovered religious pluralism, I also discovered Progressive Christianity. But the way forward was not without bumps in the road. A
common experience of many who begin to explore this way of thinking is to deconstruct the belief system we were taught. And this did happen to me. Rejecting theologies of atonement that explained the crucifixion was liberating, but it left me with a vacuum. Now what do I do with Good Friday? This was such a confrontational issue for me that, in the last year at my previous congregation, I broke out in a serious case of hives during Holy Week. The doctor in the ER kept asking what foods I’d eaten recently. When I said I’d had shrimp salad for lunch, his “ah ha!” look said that was the answer. But I knew better. I told him, “I’m not allergic to shellfish; I’m allergic to the church.” I now know I should have said, “I’m allergic to atonement theology.”
Thankfully, along with the deconstruction of Christianity comes the possibility of reconstruction. It doesn’t work that way for everyone; some people stop with deconstruction and abandon Christianity altogether. Others, like me, find ways to stay – rejecting some of the outdated theology, while “redeeming” ideas that still have merit.
So what about Good Friday? Or in other words, what about the cross? If it’s not a reminder that “Jesus died for my sins” or “Jesus paid the price for our redemption with his life” or “God demanded a sacrifice for the sin of Adam” then what is it?
The first thing I would say is that God did not send Jesus to die; there was no “divine plan” for our salvation. Jesus was killed by the Roman empire because he was a threat to their imperial authority. The Temple authorities – who served as functionaries of the empire – were also threatened. So it was not “the Jews” who killed Jesus, but a collusion of these powers-that-be.
The second thing is that Jesus was not operating out of a mandate from God to be the sacrificial lamb. Rather he willingly pursued his course of teaching and actions, knowing the risk involved. If you’ve seen the movie “Selma,” you might remember the scene in which Martin Luther King wrestles with the decision to go on the march. He and his family had received numerous death threats. Continuing to speak and act on behalf of dignity and liberation for African-Americans under the boot heel of Jim Crow carried a very high risk of death. King was not naive; he knew the risks. But he chose to go the distance for the cause. Just as Jesus had done before him. One does not have to be divine to make the supreme sacrifice.
Third thing is that it’s not all about sin or about the afterlife. Jesus didn’t die to cancel out “the bad marks in God’s little black book (that my mother warned me about) so we could get into heaven. Jesus’ life – his example and his teachings – show us how to live in the kin-dom of God now. His willingness to become empty of ego, completely selfless, fully connected with Divine Presence gives us incentive to strive to do the same.
So – back to Good Friday. I will remember Jesus’ death on the cross. It was a terrible thing, suffered by many thousands of people in the Roman empire. But I will not glory in his suffering. I will mourn the arrogance of imperial power, the complicity of those who should have known better, and the ignorance of fearful people who went along with the crowd. I’ll mourn the same thing as it’s happening today.
And I will hold out the same hope symbolized by the cross – that there is nothing an imperial power can do that will defeat the power of life, love, and liberation. We can look at the cross, Good Friday, and Christianity itself in a new way. And find hope – even in the midst of our own imperial empire.