Good Friday: Is Christianity life-giving or death dealing?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
29 Mar 2013

Vicit agnus noster eum sequamur (‘Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow him’).

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Christians, not least those of a more liturgical inclination, spend a good deal of time in Holy Week reading and absorbing the narratives of the (religious) betrayal, (political) trial and (state) execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The bits in brackets are often overlooked when the story is turned into a purely ‘spiritual’ or ‘individual’ one that abstracts spirituality from the actual fabric of life and the individual from the domain of persons-in-relation.

But this realisation that the story is historical and humanly rooted is surely only the beginning of what could rightly be called a ‘theological struggle’ to claim the meaning of Cross and resurrection in the midst of a confrontation with the powers-that-be in church, state and corporation. This conflict takes place, now as in the past, in the face of all the victims of those powers-that-be – the people with whom Jesus stood, alongside whom he was killed, and for whom (so the gospel reminds us) he was transformed to a life beyond death-dealing.

All of this can so easily be by-passed in the predictable, culture-shaped patterns of comfortable piety unfolding in churches across the land this week, or in the way Christians are tempted to expend great energy on bizarre activities like trying to get chocolate ‘Jesus eggs’ into high street supermarkets. The latter activity is an attempt to commend to the Easter message which is in danger of appearing frankly inane when weighed against the pain, suffering and expectation of a world in which the corporate power of the food industry might properly raise some rather harsher questions about the nature and meaning of redemption (rescue and recovery from all that destroys our lives). Perhaps it also illustrates how easily civic religion can sink into a well-meaning but numbing banality; something that leaves Christians effectively enfeebled in the face of those larger manipulations of faith where serious abuses of power are sanctioned in the name of God.

In other words, what is going on beneath the surface of ‘religion’ (something from which Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly believed Christianity needed to be delivered) is often unhelpfully disguised, disarmed or distorted by the polite normalisation of a gospel (good news) that is both extraordinary and which – in the case of the execution of Jesus – ought rightly to be seen as shocking, offensive and disturbing.

Ritual both helps and hinders at this point. “In a ritual sense” we join the readily persuaded hordes who were part of the original Golgotha drama as they shout, ever more loudly, "Crucify him!" But we do so without much discomfort because, at root, we see ourselves as distinct from ‘them’, the betrayers. Somehow, and despite our claims to the contrary on this point, we behave as if others are guilty, but not ourselves. Yet behind the manipulated crowd stands, often little noticed, those who in the build up to the climax of the Passion play an even darker role, alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) wearing the self-justifying clothes of piety and power as they seek to rid themselves of an itinerant trouble-maker from Nazareth, of all places.

Because the history and politics of the killing of Jesus is so readily lost, and because I am far from convinced of being ‘on the right side’ in many aspects of my life, I am often uneasy about the seemingly rather glib ‘dramatic re-enactments’ of the Passion which take place in our churches these days. This year, for a combination of personal and circumstantial reasons, I have found them particularly difficult to be part of. Which is to say, come Good Friday, my observation has consisted instead in some attempt at quiet, solitude and reflection rather than ritual participation: learning to be a part by being apart. For sometimes the questions simply overwhelm. Or, rather, the images and words that bear the message Christians seek to communicate about Christ's death are overwhelmed by the sheer contradictions of Christianity and its formal institutions.

Looking at how this day of memorial for the crucifixion has been relayed by various social media in 2013 (and I do not suppose it to be different any other year), I also cannot help noticing how alien, disturbing and frightening the dominant sacrificial language used by Christians can appear, especially when rendered by what is taken to be the most common construal of its meaning.

What is that dominant construal? Put briefly: God's "plan of salvation", as portrayed in the major modern Christian narrative, is that Jesus Christ, the only truly Innocent One, must suffer death in order to "pay the price of sin on our behalf", propitiating "the righteous anger of a Holy God" against that which offends the divine nature, thus offering the "gift of eternal life" to those who accept Christ's "atoning work" by repentance and faith in his death and resurrection. In other words, there can be no forgiveness without a price being paid in blood. (The phrases I have put in inverted commas here are the ones I have noticed being used most frequently in popular preaching and piety, by the way).

Of course, my atheist friends are convinced that the best thing to do is to consign such formulations instantly to the dustbin of myth (by which they mean untruth), with no further thought, and then to get on with life freed from the encumbrance of gods and saviours. In a certain sense, they are right. False gods and saviours lead only to destruction. But aside from the fact that confidence in our own human sense of freedom has often proved suspect in history, and that such a categorical dismissal does little to detract from the immense emotional power of “the old rugged cross”, I continue to find myself personally grasped by an indispensible truth and possibility inherent in the gospel which addresses that aspect of the human condition we are constantly tempted to ignore; namely, our need to be rescued from ourselves, to be made whole, and to be continually “restored to our right mind”. In this context, the gospel message offers the one resource that is essential to address this need: in essence, the decisive, transformative power of a love that resides beyond human capacity and manipulation, because it is the love of God who, unlike us, has no need to compete with anybody or any thing.

The gospel understood in this liberating way is not a set of propositions, it is an offer of personal and social renewal made available through a narrative way of living; one substantiated in a particular life (that of Jesus Christ) which bears the offer out and renders it actionable within the corresponding life of a community: one that claims his continuing presence and example, in and beyond death, through the self-offering of God and the creativity of the Spirit.

This is a story of life-changing possibilities which (crucially) only begins to disclose its riches as we seek to live it, alongside others, rather than to assume that we, as autonomous individuals, are alone free of delusion and full of unclouded insight. Equally, the narrative way requires us to suspend for a moment the automatic presumption that the texts and formulations of the past which seem immediately incomprehensible to us must necessarily be devoid of meaning and fruit. For we live in a culture where we have become increasing strangers to the taxonomy of scriptural reasoning, and thereby prone to think that it can only be the product of febrile, immature imagination. The challenge here is to trust enough to be able to test the intelligibility of the trust in which the message itself resides. Actually, that is a condition of most kinds of participative knowing in a contingent world, but most especially when it comes to the kind of participative knowing that opens us up to God as the self-disclosing Other, the life freeing 'beyond-in-our-midst'.

Nevertheless, and precisely because that is the way the gospel goes, there remain massive problems with the way the texts to do with the death of Christ are being read these days, in ways that are indeed potentially febrile, immature and pathological. So in the atonement (at-one-ment) story told again and again by evangelical Christianity, in particular, Jesus is seen as “the man born to die” in fulfilment of divine will. He thereby becomes, if we are not careful, little more than a vessel of flesh to be executed ‘for a higher purpose’. And it is not just evangelicals, by any means, who frame matters this way. St Teresa of Avila and other Catholic saints have said similar things over the centuries, too. Recent Catholic theology has often proceeded in a different direction, emphasising reconciliation and divine self-sacrifice over separation and punishment. But it has equally often done this in a hazy, pastoral way that baulks at discomfort. Much liberal Protestantism, on the other hand, has simply sought to avoid the pain by avoiding the problem altogether – without apparently noticing something non-believers can spot all too readily: namely, that this neglect renders them pointless and ineffectual.

The Orthodox churches, meanwhile, have much more helpfully understood the passion of Christ as part of a process of divinely wrought redemption, from death to life, aimed at final communion. This is specifically achieved through the taking up of human life into the divine by means of the divine life taking on humanity in the incarnation. In order to understand the healing power of this tradition of apprehension, one needs to enter into the "paschal mystery": that is, to be immersed in a practical human life continually re-framed by the worship of heaven. The challenge this presents is about as far away from sound bite Christianity (the kind that has come to dominate in a media age) as one could hope to get. But more of this later.

Nevertheless, despite the consolidation of wisdom in more reflective Christian circles, the present situation is that many millions of Christians still see "penal substitution" language (the idea that God cannot absolve sin without the exacting of a death penalty) as unproblematic, biblical and essential to a proper understanding of the Gospel. A small but growing number see it, by contrast, as highly damaging and dangerous in the way that it is most frequently deployed and understood, as well as misleading in its portrayal of the biblical message.

To understand what is going on with the construal that I outlined above, and how its misapprehension can easily misshape our present (as well as past) understanding of religion in relation to power, one needs to appreciate that the biblical language of sacrifice as applied to Christ arises from a culture where the propitiation or expiation of sin (wrong-doing that alienates us from God, and therefore destroys personal and communal life) traditionally involves the making of an "offering" to appease divine anger and demonstrate the desire and willingness of human beings to be reconciled with the morally transcendent Holy.

In an animal sacrifice, the wrongdoing is loaded onto a scapegoat, whose death carries it away from the community and prevents it from doing further damage. But the sin keeps returning, and so the institution of a ritual sacrificial system is needed to keep putting it away and to maintain the purity of the group. In some ancient cultures propitiation of the gods (and/or appeasement of evil spirits) had been made by human sacrifice. In Hebrew culture this was rejected (the story of Abraham and Isaac may seem ambiguous, but its outcome is not), and the shift to animal sacrifice and to a religious system for repeatedly putting sin outside the community was in this sense a huge progress. But it still enshrined the same logic (an angry, distant god must be appeased in order to spare us) which was gradually but increasingly seen and experienced as out-of-kilter with the God whose hesed (loving kindness) called for a restoration of life through an invitation to return to the path of peace and righteousness (social, interpersonal justice and right-doing) framed within a covenant relationship between people and God.

Divine anger against the socialisation of sin in political and economic life was reflected strongly in the message of the prophets, who stood by the poor and the powerless against the rich and powerful in reflecting the justice of God, and who interpreted the destruction wrought by (or resulting from) injustice as divine judgement. The overall trajectory in this pattern of thinking and action was towards reconciliation based on justice, and the restoration of community based on repentance (recognising wrong and turning to go in another direction).

The growing gap between this socially restorative (rather than primarily punitive) vision of God’s dealings, compared with that of the ritual sacrifice-based system, was filled by a growing understanding of the self-sacrificial love of God. In Exodus 17, God is in the rock that Moses is invited to strike, so that life-giving water can be released. The messianic "suffering servant" and the "man of sorrows" in Isaiah, seen by Christians as a forerunner to Christ, instantiates the self-giving love of God in being prepared to absorb suffering and death in order to defend others from it.

This is the powerful self-giving tradition reflected and deepened in the gospels. There Jesus teaches, heals and creates a community of the largely disenfranchised outside the sacrificial system. He challenges both rabbinic and temple religion when it puts the power of its upholders before the true goal of liberating people from disease, impurity, sin and guilt (all of which the traditional sacrificial system was designed to address, but which it ended up perpetuating).

The guardians of this religious system were of course furious that it was being challenged and bypassed. That compromised their own power and control. The upholders of the political system were correspondingly concerned at the possibility of conflict and dissent within the religious community leading to rebellion against imperial rule. So it was that the path towards Jesus’ execution was established. There was, interpreters such as Rene Girard have suggested, an inevitability about the clash between the way of Jesus and the powers that be. But the inexorable nature of this clash between two kinds of power (one self-giving and one coercive) was not occasioned by fate or divine will, but rather by Jesus’ rejection of scapegoating and the sacrifice of ordinary people to overbearing religious authority.

In other words, Jesus’ way, life and truth was essentially anti-sacrificial. But sacrificial ideology then, as now (albeit in different cultural, religious and political forms) remained dominant. Something had to give, and it turned out to be Jesus’ life. In the gospel narrative, that is not the end of the matter, of course. Human death-dealing, religious manipulation and imperial politics combined to attempt to extinguish the threat of the One whose life was the incarnation of divine freedom and love. But God raised Jesus. Divine life giving is more powerful than both death and the kind of living enslaved to the ideology of death or defended by the sacrifice of others’ lives to preserve our own.

It is in this sense and context that Christ’s death is occasioned by human wrongdoing, confronts human wrongdoing and defeats the entire edifice of death dealing, victimisation and falsehood created by human wrongdoing. This is what it means truthfully and necessarily to say, “Christ died to free us from our sin”. In other words, the saving message of cross and resurrection (together) is that it is God's overflowing love embracing sin, suffering and death in order to overcome it that frees us to live differently and to be baptised into ‘a new creation’ (in which, among other things, the logic of killing is destroyed). It is not human sacrifice that forces this deal. The death of Christ is not a matter of divine pleasure, but of divine suffering and loss. Short of Easter Sunday it is, as Jack Miles wonderfully puts it, in the subtitle of his intriguing if flawed book Christ, “a crisis in the life of God”. Or at least, a crisis in the life of God as construed by false human attempts to construct a god masquerading as God: that is, a monarchical overlord writ large.

Of course the sheer radicality of this alternative story of God and the world brought about by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is such that it was and is difficult for what one might call ‘the conventional religious mind’ to grasp. In his Damascus Road turnaround, Paul did grasp it (or rather, was grasped by it, so that he moved from being a persecutor of believers to a proclaimer of hope). But this Gospel was nevertheless extremely counterintuitive to the received mindset engendered by traditional sacrificial logic.

How could the ‘old story’ both take on and be transformed by the ‘new story’? That was the key issue. The answer was a variety of imaginative attempts in the New Testament, larger schemas (Christus Victor, ransom, satisfaction and recapitulation) in the patristic era, and more formal theories (governmental, moral influence, and penal substitution) in the unfolding history of Christianity post-Constantine. These accounts of the meaning and effects of the death of Christ point in a range of directions. They use elements of language that were powerfully reconsolidated by St Anslem in the 11th century to produce a juridical approach based on the legal satisfaction of debt and honour (the courtly understanding of his day). This, in particular, has shaped modern uses of biblical language, such that many have imbibed Anselmian constructions in evangelical usage well before they encounter the biblical texts themselves. They therefore learn to read the text through the theory, rather than to critique a unifying theory through the actual diversity of the texts.

Lost in the midst of this is the much more subversive Gospel story of Jesus the wounded healer and empire challenger. This resituates the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection as a protest against unjust rule and power as domination in which the victory of God is secured by forgiveness, restoration and self-giving, not anger, punishment and sacrifice. Such an account, which perceives an essential unity between Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (rather than developing ideas about his death in abstraction from his and God’s life) has surfaced and laid its claim upon us from outwith imperial versions of Christianity over the ages.

Meanwhile, the way many early Christians understood Christ's death in relation to the different but overlapping sacrificial inheritances of Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures was that God had taken human flesh, and that as the One in whom the life of God and the life of humanity definitively move together without confusion or contradiction, Christ faced the full consequences of sin (betrayal and death dealing) in his own body. The point, of course, as the Epistle to the Hebrews spells out in its complex imagery, is that, in Christ, the entire edifice of the sacrificial system has been absorbed and abolished. Death is no longer the gateway to eternal (that is, unrestricted) life; rather life (the kind that only God can give, embodied in the raising of Jesus) is a gateway to re-understanding death dealing, including the 'holy' death dealing of sacrificial religion and politics, as finally redundant. As Girard points out, even the most sacrificially oriented text in the New Testament turns out to be anti-sacrificial. But the sacrificial language goes on being used in order to communicate with those for whom this is the frame of reference. The purpose is to begin a process of turning our understanding around.

What happened when Christianity became a religion accommodated to empire, however, was that the subversive story of Jesus was itself subverted by religious and political interests that found a sacrificial system both necessary and useful to their attempts to hold on to power. Jesus as a redeemer-figure was disconnected from his actual living example (thus the “man born to die” reductionism) and turned into the pinnacle and exemplar of the very system of scapegoating and blood sacrifice that had actually played a significant part in killing him, and from which he was released and vindicated not by an overwhelming display of violent power but by the nonviolent apocalypse that is resurrection: the giving of a kind of life unconstrained by mortal life and death in a way that only God can achieve, as well as a vindication of the victim over and against the victimisation system.

The paradox of the Cross, then, is that the language used in much popular, evangelical Christianity today both enshrines the essential elements of the true story of how death and suffering is confronted and defeated, while at the same time providing de-contextualised (but immensely powerful) words and images which can seem to contradict the reality of divine self-giving by re-inscribing the crucifixion into an imperial story of blood-payment to a god who maintains the dominant order of rule through punishment and death. This, it must be firmly said, is not the God of Jesus Christ, but a cultic idol usurping his name in order to justify existing power relations in collusive religious and political domains.

The theological struggle for the meaning and interpretation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is therefore not an abstract war of words, but a struggle for the nature and identity of the Gospel, which also has profound consequences for the life of the world. Given the ideology of blood sacrifice and hierarchical power that underpins it, it is surely no surprise that in those parts of the world where the penal substitutionary understanding of atonement not only predominates but claims to be the sole essential interpretative understanding of the death of Christ, there is also a rejection of restorative justice in favour of punitive judicial policies, an attachment to the death penalty, a reliance on violence and armed power as ‘just war’, and a belief that monarchical male authority is the way divine will is discharged in ecclesial and human affairs.

Tragically, Good Friday has therefore become Bad Friday for the victims of brands of Christianity who take the cross and say, as did the Emperor Constantine before the Battle of Milvan Bridge (according to Eusebius), “By this sign, you shall conquer.” Those are possibly the six most disastrous words in the history of Christianity, They represent, along with the belief that God demands sacrifice for forgiveness to be possible, the most fundamental misunderstanding and misapplication of the Christian message that it is possible to arrive at. Unknowingly, the ethics and instrumentality of Caesar is allowed to usurp and contaminate the quite opposite ethic and instrumentality of Christ. Roman emperors were in this sense quite right to kill Christians in the way that Jesus himself had been killed, and Christians are quite wrong to seek to implement the ethics and instrumentality of Caesar with a Christian gloss or with an attempt to reinstate the very sacrificial religious system that Christ abolished by the way he died (“Abba, forgive. They know not what they do”).

Where, then, do we go from here? I have already suggested that liberal Protestantism’s attempt to abandon the doctrine of the Cross, consciously or by default, is a major mistake, for four reasons, which I will now name here.

First, it is a mistake because the crucifixion of Christ and the vindication made available in his risen life really does embody God’s confrontation with, and dethroning of, the powers of sin and death. Cease to believe that and we cease to have a Gospel worth caring about.

Second, because underestimating or denying the tragically flawed reality of the human condition (not least our constant tendency to use killing as an instrument of policy), which is what rejecting the necessity of cross and resurrection entails, leaves us with only well-meaning liberalism and therapeutic religiosity to confront the forces of destruction – as Bonhoeffer saw all too well, living as he did in a world of Nazis where “pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps” was manifestly not enough.

Third, because abandoning the language of Good Friday to those who would (often inadvertently, sometimes deliberately) make it captive to a reinstatement of a sacrificial, scapegoating order with a ‘Jesus mask’ is a hugely harmful betrayal of the true Gospel of transformative forgiveness.

Fourth, because Christianity without the peril and power of “Christ crucified and risen” (St Paul) is what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship).

There is therefore a positive task of first-order theological repair and recovery to be carried out. But this is not a matter of having to come up with another bright idea out of thin air. The resources we need are already there in scripture, in the traditions of church thought and formulary, in Christian experience, and in the possibilities of “reasoning with a mystery” which we call theology. Of course, the contradictions and problems are there, too. This is why the task of interpretation and reinterpretation requires a community of habit and character (formed by prayer, worship and action) which enables it to be open to the past as to the future, believing God to be all-in-all beyond our limitations and fragility.

There are several major resources I would point to in terms of re-understanding the Cross and atonement in a way that remains faithful to what we have learned from text and tradition, while also faithful to what we see of the Christlike God in the contemporary – forgiving people, making peace, restoring lives, creating community, enabling resistance, and resourcing change.

One of these I have already referred to: the traditions of mystical theology and liturgical representation available (not without dispute or cost, of course) in the historic Orthodox family of faith. This goes far deeper than much Protestant and Catholic theorising, and is truly evangelical in narrating us into the story of the Good News as a whole, rather than allowing us to extrapolate one component of that story for selective purposes.

Another is the Christological core of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s thought (reflected and developed in plenty of other Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist places now), which is reflected in books such as The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism , The Politics of Jesus: Vicit agnus noster , The Christian Witness to the State, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel and Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World. In these and other works, Yoder shows us the Cross in context, such that it is both ancient and startlingly new.

A third resource is the whole conversation about ‘nonviolent atonement’ and its application in practical theories of justice, of which the book Jonathan Bartley and I edited in 2005, Consuming Passion: Why the killing of Jesus really matters, is but one small example.

Additionally, hymnody, litany and worship materials of the kind produced by the Iona Community are helping many Christians to re-envision the meaning of the Cross in history and in our culture, such that we are equipped to go and 'do the Gospel' that shapes us, in order to take on a confused, broken, unjust and often violent world without feeling that the only ‘weapons’ at our disposal are the brutalising ones wielded by our our opponents.

Last, but definitely not least, there is that profound silence of heart and mind which Quakers and other non-liturgical believers help us to preserve. In coming to terms with the Cross, silence is both required and demanded. Torture and death brooks no tidy 'explanation'. It is no less than God who is humanly silenced in the crucifixion, but the silence of defeat and of waiting can only be truly understood in the silence of wonder that the third day evokes. For all these reasons and more, Gustavo Gutierrez has called silence the first and last word in a theology which truly does seek to signify the divine, rather than to fill the void with our own noise and justifications.

In summary, Christ’s Cross points to the resources of suffering love that only the God of life can offer, because they are ‘beyond our means’ humanly, but not beyond divine gifting. For what lies at the heart of the Gospel is 'the Lamb who was slain', whose reign is of the wounded over all wounding, thus denying victory to the many slayers of lambs who presently rule the world. Vicit agnus noster eum sequamur, indeed.

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Also on Easter themes from Ekklesia:

* Consuming Passion: Why the killing of Jesus really matters, edited by Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005).

* 'Burying enmity: the language of the Cross', by Savitri Hensman: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18265

* 'The religious betrayal of God and its antidote', by Simon Barrow: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14612

* 'Good Friday: The execution of God', by Simon Barrow: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14624

* 'What sense does it make to say 'Christ died for us'?', by Simon Barrow: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14623

* 'Cross and resurrection through a poet's eyes', by Alison Goodlad: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14621)

* 'Wondering again over the Passion', by Jill Segger: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14617).

* 'Resurrection is no Easter conjuring trick', by Simon Barrow: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6938

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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