Today Christians observe what is known as Good Friday. I grew up in a Protestant church that didn’t put much stock in dwelling on the crucifixion, preferring to stake our faith flag in the fertile ground of the resurrection. It was in seminary when I began to attend Good Friday services and became increasing drawn to this disturbing, violent and holy day.
Jesus’ death is a central plot point in the Christian story. For some, the death on the cross represents the act of substitutionary atonement – Jesus pays for each of our private sins through the shedding of his own blood on the cross. While this is a central belief for some Christians, it is not for me. In this departure I feel a great kinship with my great-grandfather Walter who of the substittionary atonement theory said: “it was not taught by Jesus; it makes salvation dependent upon a Trinitarian transaction that is remote from human experience; and it implies a concept of divine justice that is repugnant to human sensitivity.”
Yet there is something about Jesus’ sacrifice that attracts my ‘human sensitivity.’ At a service of the seven last words a local pastor recalled a story from the book Bridge Over the River Kwai when a prisoner brigade that was building the infamous bridge was found to be missing a shovel. As no one would come forward with the missing shovel the attending guard resolved to murder the entire group. One man stepped forward and claimed responsibility and was shot down immediately. At the next checkpoint the missing shovel was found and it was revealed that the man who had stepped forward had been innocent but had sacrificed himself to save the others.
The result was a dramatic change in the hearts of the rest of the prisoners who, following the sacrificial example, became a community that cared for one another in radical ways. And when the camp was freed and the captives became the captors they were guided by mercy and refused to continue the circle of violence. The power of Jesus’ sacrifice, that of an innocent man who put himself forward as a supreme act of courage for the well being and salvation of others, attracts me profoundly. On the night before he was betrayed, Jesus gave the great commandment that we are to love one another the way that he loved us. This commandment to sacrifice for one another as Jesus sacrificed for us is the understanding of the crucifixion that rings true, if troubling, for me.
If nothing else, Jesus was crucified as a revolutionary in a political warning against anyone who would threaten the Roman Empire. The most immediate understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus for me is its evidence of God’s radical compassion with those who suffer from sickness, violence and oppression. Jesus is with those who are suffering because he suffered as well. For those with eyes to see, Jesus is being crucified right now. Not for our sins, but because of our sins.
The Roman Catholic group Pax Christi holds a stations of the cross march through New York City every Good Friday to “commemorate Jesus’ suffering and the suffering of His people in the world today.” I have participated in this out of place band of believers marching through Manhattan ending in Times Square as we prayed Jesus’ last words outside of multi-national conglomerates, wasteful fast-food chains, and the army recruitment station. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
This year I am doing my own stations of the cross as I surf through the stories of suffering, violence and oppression in our current time. Katherine Marshall in her recent post for “On Faith” laments the apparent lack of interest by the G-20 to address the needs of the “least of these” in their calculations. She writes:
Two billion people are struggling with poverty, yet the subject is strangely absent from current political discourse. Financial pages and wires track stock prices second by second, but signs of worsening poverty-infant and maternal death rates, lower infant birth weights, malnutrition, crime, disease-take months to emerge.
There is a hymn that is sung by Christians on Good Friday which asks: Where you there when they Crucified my Lord?
For those of us living in the 21st century the answer continues to be – yes.