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Good Friday: For the Badness and the Sadness

What does this have to do with me? These were the decidedly impious words that kept rattling around my cranium as I drove around town running errands after a local Good Friday service this morning. It had been a meaningful service—beautiful music, considerable time spent hearing Scripture, a dramatic portrayal of Jesus’ betrayal, “trial,” and crucifixion—but for some reason, the events we remembered this morning seemed light years away from my own life and experience.

Today, I found my mind wandering, departing from the script. I thought not of the usual divinely-authored, salvation-accomplishing, prophecy-fulfilling story of Jesus’ death, but of the human story behind those awful events that took place outside Jerusalem two thousand or so Fridays ago. I thought of all the political manipulation, all the religious groping and grasping after power and status, of the human betrayal, of the idealistic young rabbi who, to quote Albert Schweitzer, “threw himself under the wheel of history” in an attempt to bring about the kingdom of God. I thought of how this Jesus must have seemed not to comfortable postmodern suburbanites, but to his first-century contemporaries… Not the second person of the Trinity or my “personal Lord and Saviour,” but an enigmatic revolutionary, a strangely compelling religious zealot who threatened the powers and structures and institutions of his day and who was executed for his troubles.

I thought about these things, but I also thought simply of a very sad story. I thought of a young man wrongfully accused, falsely tried and convicted… of a horrific and barbaric execution… of how there is so much violence in our world… has always been so much violence… how the violence never stops, but just hardens and breaks us, numbing and deadening our souls. I thought about a brokenhearted mother and a son gone too soon. I thought about confused and shattered disciples of another failed Messiah. I thought of a beleaguered, harassed, and occupied people whose wait would continue. Such a very sad story…

I thought of all these things and more as I watched these familiar scenes and heard these familiar words. But what do these strange events that comprise this sad story have to do with me?

That we affix the adjective “good” to this Friday could surely be seen as among the more perverse ironies of history. These events are not “good,” in any normal sense of the word, even for those who have an eye on the Sunday coming. We still stubbornly call it “Good Friday,” though, perhaps because from that terrible first Friday down to today, there has always been a sense that there is more to the story than the sadness and the badness that we see on the human level. There has always been a sense that, while the story of Jesus’ last hours is a profoundly human story, it is more than this as well. There has always been a sense, however partially understood or embraced, that the God of the universe was somehow at work amidst all of this tragedy and evil and apathy and betrayal and confusion and tears and rage and emptiness and despair.

The Christian conviction has always been that the story of the execution of a young Jewish revolutionary by the collusion of religion and Empire is only part of the story—that behind these events, God was at work reconciling all things to himself. The Christian conviction has always been that this Friday changed things. Big things. Cosmic things. Historical and social and spiritual and existential things. Somehow, this death was a turning point in history. Somehow this death has echoed down through the ages.

There is so much that we don’t understand about this death. We fight about theories of the atonement and what they mean and how much we have to understand and in what way… We try to wrap our little brains around how one member of the Trinity can die… We scramble for terminology like sin and punishment and vicarious substitution… We have all of these images and concepts competing for space in our brains… Jesus died to satisfy the wrath of God… no, wait, he died to express solidarity with the oppressed… or, was it a kenotic expression for us to emulate… or the ultimate reminder that we do not suffer alone, that God is with us in our suffering… Or maybe he was just a victim, plain and simple… Or all of the above, and more? So much we don’t understand…

I think that those of us who presume to speak for or about God for a living should tread very carefully around mysteries like these. We so often confidently proclaim what this or that meant, why this or that had to happen, what this or that accomplished, how God “had” to do this or that to get this or that, what this or that means for you and what you should do about it. We use impressive, churchy-sounding words to describe it in order to keep the story manageable and safe, to make it look like we know what we’re talking about, to make it seem like God is as rational as we are. But the truth is that the horrible execution story we remembered today in our Sunday finest in our comfortable seats is a story cloaked in mystery at every turn. Glorious, frightful, beautiful, God-awful mystery.

And yet, we cannot shake the deep sense that this Friday mystery is a hopeful one, and that the God behind these mysterious events is a generous, merciful, self-emptying God. We are convinced that these mysteries do, indeed, have something—everything, actually—to do with us, all these years later. We may understand less than we think we do about the cross of Christ, but we understand enough to know that the badness and sadness of our stories is bound up with the badness and sadness of that first awful Friday. And we know that somehow the cross is part of God doing something for the badness and the sadness that we could never do for ourselves.

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. pickler #

    Could the Omnipotent have chosen a more outstandingly tragic human narrative to conduct his plan of redemption? Does the cross seem ever so slightly less than horrific next to genocides, gulags, nuclear bombs and so on? Perhaps it does.
    and perhaps like so many other of our human assistances we ought to stop ‘helping’ God tell his story – stop ratcheting up the rhetorical fervor.
    is it not tragic enough to know that the God incarnate could be so easily dispatched – as just another common criminal.
    in that day those with whom the establishment had a real ethical and moral problem with were not just abandonded to Roman scientific execution – they were publically stoned. Yet not even such an ‘honor’ was afforded the Christ…
    Did the Omnipotent need this narrative told in this way to accomplish His redemptive plan? Hardly
    Perhaps the cross is not so much meant to ask us to feel sorry for a God who had to do this for us than to ask us to feel sorry for us for not recognizing Him among us…

    April 9, 2012
    • I think that Christians invest far too much time and energy in, as you say, “ratcheting up the rhetorical fervor” around the cross. It’s almost as if we think that if we could just present or understand how horrible/gruesome/violent it was, if we could only plumb the depths of Christ’s suffering, we would surely be emboldened/motivated/guilted into responding appropriately.

      I like how you say it here: “is it not tragic enough to know that the God incarnate could be so easily dispatched – as just another common criminal?” Yes, yes it is certainly tragic enough… That we could snuff God out with such common and predictable fear-mongering, hatred, and violence. As Hannah Arendt said, the evils we are capable of as human beings are so often truly banal in origin and nature.

      I suppose the point of the post wasn’t so much to present the cross as tragic or horrible “enough” for this or that response as much as it was a reflection upon walking through these events with slightly different eyes and ears than usual. And if there is undoubtedly a danger in too eagerly ratcheting the rhetoric around the events of the cross up, perhaps there could also be a danger in downgrading it too far as well. That Jesus was not the only person to suffer like this and that our world has seen suffering on a far greater and more horrific scale than Calvary does not make his suffering any less tragic.

      April 9, 2012
      • pickler #

        oh and please don’t misunderstand my response as an accusation of you being on the other end of said ratchet. – quite the opposite.
        your response here does make me wonder about framing Christ’s death as tragic.
        See if you follow my thinking here…
        Isn’t a tragedy supposed to in some way denote failure – to acheive the objective or dissolve meaning? i think that is how we commonly understand tragedy.
        for Christ’s death to have been tragic would it not have had to fail in some way – but in fact it seems that if he had NOT died there would have been a failure – at least from a conventional understnading of what took place on the cross.
        this is what perplexes me…
        it seems unavoidable to look at the cross without seeing it as an intentional act of Christ – do we not claim that this is what God’s intention was all along – this certainly is how we have used Isaiah in connection with this event.
        If it is intentional can it really be tragic – or is it just sad and disheartening that we needed God to enact his plan in this method.
        Divine though it may be i can’t help seeing Christ taking his own life – does this make any sense at all?

        April 10, 2012
      • Yeah, “tragic” probably isn’t the best word choice—I think you’re right, it does denote some kind of a failure or unrealized outcome. I think for those of us who believe that this was the outworking of some kind of a divine plan, while we can enter into the pathos and darkness of the story, we probably can’t label it a “tragedy.”

        I’m not sure if I undersand what you’re getting it with your last sentence. Are you thinking of the cross as a kind of divine suicide mission?

        April 10, 2012
  2. Ken #

    re: “another failed messiah.”

    Your use of this expression surprises me.

    What is Jesus?

    April 9, 2012
    • The expression is just meant to reflect how things must have seemed to many at the time.

      April 9, 2012
      • Ken #

        Thanks. I was afraid some my style of expression had rubbed off on you:)

        It is also interesting to think about the “failed messiah” metaphor in the context of all the Hasidic rabbis since then that have done all they could to bring about the coming of the messiah. When I think of “failed messiah” or the delayed, possibly forever, second coming in that context, it is a beautiful thing. It has more to do with loving God and loving one’s people now than with what happened so long ago.

        My question – “What is Jesus?” – I ask myself this. As I have alluded before, I increasingly think of Jesus and the universe as one. Rather than calling this pantheism, like it sounds, Chardin called it Christism – Christ in all things, or all things are Christ. I am not seeking converts to such thought, I should perhaps add. Still, for me, I am finding a peace with that thought that has eluded me in all other theologies.

        April 9, 2012
      • Again, not having read much Chardin, I’m reticent to say too much about “Christism.” On the face of it, I have a hard time understanding “all things are Christ” (even evil things?) much less embracing it. But perhaps it is a different way of saying or reflecting upon what is going on in, for example, Colossians 1:16-18—Christ, the one in whom all things hold together.

        April 9, 2012
  3. Ken #

    I don’t recall Chardin mentioning evil, although he does mention suffering.

    I think that any theology that integrates evolution, to the extent that Chardin did, does not see much evil in the world.

    Christism was term Chardin invented to distinguish his theology from pantheism, in a non polemical way. (And right now, I cannot remember whether the term was pan-Christism or Christism – doesn’t matter really.) It only meant that he thought of the universe as the body of Christ. He was not reflecting on Colossians. As we know, Roman Catholic theology does not begin with the Bible. His theology is, no doubt, not easily embraced by any whose theology tracks the Biblical narrative literally to any significant degree. He also pressed the boundaries of Roman Catholic theology in his day. Less so today.

    April 10, 2012
    • I’m sure there are many compelling aspects of Chardin’s theology, but I struggle with any view that collapses evil (whether ontological or phenomenological or otherwise) into God or the cosmos or whatever. It’s not my view of the Bible that would prevent me from embracing this view; it would be its failure to do justice to our experience of the amount and variety of evil in the world or to offer any kind of cosmic defeat/redemption of it.

      April 10, 2012
  4. Ken #

    I don’t recall Chardin ever mentioning evil. Evil does not exist in some views of the world, as in the Darwinian view. Suffering does exist, but is not attributed to evil. That seems to be Chardin’s way.

    Doesn’t all monotheism effectively “collapse evil into God?” Is this not why theodicy is an attempt to defend God?

    Much nature writing, but not all, reflects a concern with evil, especially a concern with the harm that humanity causes to the rest of life and the planet. Much writing about climate change is like this, for example. It is like traditional Christian theology in that respect, and much like the Bible too – one might consider the wickedness of humanity that provoked God to flood the earth. Other nature writing approaches this subject differently, more like Chardin.

    Darwin is interesting in this respect too. He was skeptical of humanity’s goodness, relative to that of nature, and yet he saw humanity as indistinct from the rest of life or nature. And he saw nature itself as indifferent to love and hate, and yet profoundly kind in spite of that.

    It may be that Chardin saw profound cosmic kindness where others see good and evil. His was a beautiful vision of the universe. His aim was unity with that universe – a universe that is, in his words, “the bosom of God.”

    April 11, 2012
    • Re: evil does not exist in some views of the world, I wonder if this is really so. I think it is renamed and reframed in order to more accurately align with this or that worldview assumption, but however it is named or described, it remains evil. To describe, for example, the torture of a small child or a mass genocide as “an example of suffering” certainly doesn’t seem adequate. There are some deeds for which no other word will do.

      Doesn’t all monotheism effectively “collapse evil into God?” Is this not why theodicy is an attempt to defend God?

      Monotheism has many logical issues to contend with when it comes to the nature and ongoing reality of evil, but I don’t think they are the same as those of pantheism or Chardin’s “Christism” (to whatever extent I understand the term). In Christianity, evil remains separate from God—it is not part of the divine nature as I assume it must be if, for example, “all things are Christ.” Of course, many issues remain—even if evil is not part of God, it may still be argued that God bears the responsibility for allowing it, etc. That’s all fair enough, but I think these are different kinds of questions than the ones that arise if evil is thought to be somehow constitutive of God’s very identity.

      Re: Darwin, I don’t doubt that on a theoretical level he, and many since, considered humanity to be indistinct from the rest of nature, but the theory seems to be betrayed by the practice on almost every level. We don’t live as if we are indistinct from nature. Nature may not care about love and hate, but we certainly do. Nature may not care about pain and suffering but we certainly do. Nature may not have the ability to reflect upon it’s meaning (or lack) but we certainly can and do. From what I have read of Darwin’s personal story, he seemed to be profoundly impacted by the amount of suffering and waste he saw in the natural world—a perfectly understandable reaction from a creature who has capacities and inclinations that go beyond the rest of nature. I think that if we really were completely indistinct from nature on every level, it would never occur to us to ask the question of whether or not we are distinct from nature.

      April 11, 2012
    • Ken #

      I don’t mean to argue or object to your view of the world and evil at all, nor to persuade you that Chardin’s way is better – although I do prefer it myself.

      The last paragraph you wrote also represents an interesting contrast to my beliefs. I think we are indistinct from rest of nature, and it is a source of comfort to me.

      The idea that we are different from other creatures matters much to some of my friends, especially if they believe in God or have strong moral beliefs. This idea is, on the other hand, appalling to other friends because it is associated historically with justifying cruelty to animals and destruction of the environment. I am more like these latter friends.

      I think the evidence now points to existence of grief and other emotions among animals, at least, and perhaps, or probably, among other species as well. Humanity seems much less unique than it once did. It is now commonly accepted in evolution biology that we are not unique and that we are also not the pinnacle of evolution, no more interesting from an evolutionary perspective than an amoeba.

      Nature is indifferent to love and hate only in the metaphorical way that Darwin made that observation. He meant that natural selection had no such aim as love or hate, nor any other aim. He did not mean to personify or deify nature, or natural selection. He had been thinking about a queen bee’s instinctive actions to kill her fertile daughters. He did not mean to literally associate hate with those actions. It is appalling to us, evil to us, but such things are part of our making if one believes as Darwin did that natural selection accounts for the origin of species and accounts alone for what we are, and for our loves and hates, such as they are.

      April 11, 2012
      • The idea that we are different from other creatures matters much to some of my friends, especially if they believe in God or have strong moral beliefs. This idea is, on the other hand, appalling to other friends because it is associated historically with justifying cruelty to animals and destruction of the environment. I am more like these latter friends.

        Yes, these are certainly two common positions. It could also be turned the other way entirely. The view that human beings are distinct from other creatures could be used to advocate a posture of respectful and compassionate stewardship. The view that human beings are in no way distinct from other creatures could be used to justify a careless and reckless approach to the rest of the natural world. One could also say that our very ability to rationally and morally reflect upon the position we occupy—and, more importantly, ought to occupy—in relation to other creatures is itself evidence that we are unique. Regardless, when it comes to questions like these, everything depends upon the philosophical assumptions we embrace, whether we are evolutionary biologists, theologians, or anywhere in between.

        April 12, 2012
  5. Ken #

    Re: The view that human beings are distinct from other creatures could be used to advocate a posture of respectful and compassionate stewardship.

    Yes, I have seen this too. Critics of this view see something in it that the holders of the view do not. The critics see a human centeredness that is not overcome by the posture of respectful and compassionate stewardship. Similarly, radical feminists do not believe there is any such thing as benevolent patriarchy.

    Re: The view that human beings are in no way distinct from other creatures could be used to justify a careless and reckless approach to the rest of the natural world.

    I have not seen this.

    The view that humans are “not distinct” does not ignore human traits and differences, but challenges the long-standing belief that these differences make us superior in value from either a moral perspective or from a biological perspective. The view also sees similarities of humanity with other life that other views do not. It is often associated with a view that humans, in our great numbers especially, are a danger to the planet, rather than being associated with a recklessness towards the rest of the planet.

    April 12, 2012
    • Yes, I am aware of how critics view this position. The criticism strikes me as ironic, and possibly even incoherent, because those who make it are often engaging in identical behaviours (i.e., advocating and demonstrating responsible stewardship) requiring virtually identical presuppositions about the uniqueness of human beings. One can leave God out of the picture entirely: to engage in rational and moral reflection upon how to treat non-human creatures and the natural world in general is to assume human uniqueness and to adopt a posture of “above-ness (for lack of a better term) toward the non-human world. The project cannot proceed without it. This is not a statement of the value or worth of human beings with respect to other creatures, nor is it in any way an attempt to justify the danger that human beings have posed and continue to pose to the rest of the planet. It is simply an observation that human uniqueness seems to be presupposed by all parties, regardless of their ethical and philosophical views.

      I agree, there aren’t many of examples of people using the view that human beings are no different than amoebas to justify a reckless approach to nature. My point is that there is nothing in the view itself that would logically prevent this conclusion. There’s nothing built into the view that human beings are not unique that requires the the further conclusion that we have a moral responsibility to act responsibly toward the non-human world. That conclusion comes from somewhere else and is justified via different philosophical assumptions.

      April 12, 2012
  6. Ken #

    Yes, there is some irony and lack of coherency in many such criticisms. I do see evidence though of a real break from the stewardship model and a genuine care for the earth and wildness that is built outside of, and seen outside of, an assumption of human uniqueness. Aldo Leopold is a prime example, and Loren Eiseley, and Robinson Jeffers. Humanists have criticized such writers for not showing due concern or recognition of human uniqueness or importance. James Lovelock is another.

    It is a new genre – barely more than a century old. Experimentation is happening. The language is evolving.

    As for me, I have cast my lot with those who have broken away, even at the risk of irony and incoherence. It is a choice born of love for the wild. As the prophet wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

    April 12, 2012
    • I’m not trying to belabour the point unnecessarily, but I am intrigued by this statement:

      I do see evidence though of a real break from the stewardship model and a genuine care for the earth and wildness that is built outside of, and seen outside of, an assumption of human uniqueness.

      Two questions emerge from this statement, for me:

      1. Is “stewardship” a dirty or undesirable word? Why? Because of its “religious” connotations? Because of its history? Is it a word that could be redeemed?

      2. How would care for the earth that is conceived, justified, evaluated, and implemented by human beings be built outside of an assumption of human uniqueness? What would it look like to say that we, alone among the species, ought to assume the task of caring for the rest of the world but, at the same time, that we have no special status?

      I can appreciate that the language around these matters is, as you say, evolving, but it’s very difficult for me to see how or why at least some acknowledgment of human uniqueness is seen to be such an impediment to progress in this matter.

      April 12, 2012
  7. Ken #

    1. It is treated as an undesirable word in much nature writing because it implies the specialness of humanity. The idea of specialness is inconsistent with today’s understanding of evolution. It is associated historically with seeing the earth and its life as resources for humanity, rather than seeing the earth and its life, of which we are part, as having value in itself. It is a dirty word in some analyses of history, but less so in others, Oelshlaeger, for example. There is definitely an attempt to avoid the word. It is at least unnecessary.

    I don’t think Christians need to speak of stewardship for the planet, or need to take the Genesis “dominion” passage in the way it has been taken in the past. It can, instead, be taken only in the context of Israel and God, or of the land God gave to Israel in a myth that placed the exile in the context of a culture quite different from ours a long time ago. Its meaning can be interpreted as referring indirectly to unity with God that has no literal connection with dominion over other creatures.

    2. It is built outside of that assumption through seeing the earth and all its life as an organism or whole. With that assumption, care exists without believing humans are unique in any way that places us above or outside anything else in that organism. It comes from desire rather than from an assumption of our uniqueness or power.

    In Chardin’s case, he saw a uniqueness in humanity, in our degree of consciousness. It mattered to him. I don’t recall him using or criticizing the use of the word “stewardship” and don’t have the impression he thought of himself or us as stewards.

    He also wrote about evolution having a kind of direction, of ever greater unity with Christ, for whom the body is the universe. Sometimes that sounds inconsistent with his purely Darwinian understanding in which evolution has no aim. Other times I think he is just marveling at the wondrous, unpredictable, undirected unfolding of life and the universe of which it is part and associating that with the body of Christ.

    April 12, 2012
    • Thanks, Ken. This still strikes me as a rather elaborate exercise in demonstrating human uniqueness in the very process of trying to avoid or condemn it, but I suspect that there’s not much to be gained by continuing to repeat ourselves here.

      I am inclined to agree with Chardin, regarding consciousness, incidentally. One of the many wondrous, unpredictable aspects of life on this planet, in my view.

      April 12, 2012
      • Ken #

        And thank you for exploring this with me. Indeed, it may be as you say. I sympathize so much with deep ecology, whether it avoids its own demon or not. Similarly, perhaps, in Christian ecological stewardship there may more deep ecology hidden in the traditional language, or in feelings, than its adherents recognize. Both deep ecology and ecological stewardship involve deep religious sentiments and care. If liberal theology is right, then deep inside, at least, they must be the same.

        April 12, 2012

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