The thing we need to hear every Good Friday

CrucifixionThere is a blog post titled “The Thing I Never Want to Hear Again on Good Friday” making the rounds on Facebook. In the post, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush describes a powerful experiences of a dramatic Passion reading in which the congregation practiced the custom of shouting “Crucify him, crucify him!” The author writes:

I heard myself say the words and take part in this ritual and it made me physically sick. I couldn’t believe that this was the liturgy that this kind, little church had been using for the past decades, maybe longer. But even worse, I found myself participating in it; perpetuating an anti-Jewish theology of deicide that I knew was wrong, but feeling helpless to do anything about it.

I sympathize. The words are powerful, and many people are struck by the liturgies of Holy Week, often in unexpected and varied ways. What sickens one person inspires another. Here of course, we are dealing with the possibility of anti-Judaism, something which no Christian has the luxury of dismissing casually. Our legacy with our Jewish brothers and sisters is a moral blight on the Gospel and on our faith.

But I find myself disagreeing strenuously with the conclusions of the blog post. Raushenbush quotes professor Mary Boys from Union Theological Seminary, “We have to change the liturgies. The passion narratives should not be read without commentary on who Jesus was and what his wider ministry was about.”

You see, I think the Passion narratives themselves teach us who Jesus was and what his wider ministry was about. Far from dismissing them, we need to embrace the heart-wrenching story of the Passion and gaze at Jesus from the foot of the cross. The Lord of Life hanging on a cross teaches about sacrificial offering, about the wide embrace of God’s love.

To be sure, I freely and with great sadness acknowledge that Christians have perverted the Gospel and the liturgy to stir up rage and to incite violence against Jews. We must confess our sins past and present, and seek to turn anew toward God. I think that sanitizing our past or the scriptural witness would be unhelpful, if we are to avoid repeating the same sins. Indeed, we must remember continually that the the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not belong to us Christians alone.

I even acknowledge that the Passion narratives, especially in John’s telling, contain within themselves anti-Jewish elements. But this is because the inspired word of God, containing all things necessary to salvation, was recorded by flawed humans, filled with human fears. We can and must look at the difficult places of the narrative and then step back and see the wider story of self-offering and boundless love.

A preacher on Good Friday would do well to talk about how the crucifixion is the fruit of human sinfulness, something we all share in, not something that can be blamed on any person or group. We humans crucified Jesus. When we ignore the homeless on our doorsteps, we fail to care for Jesus Christ himself. When we eat our fill while others starve, we steal nourishment from Jesus Christ himself. When we stir up hatred against the vulnerable or fear of those who differ from us, we alienate ourselves from Jesus Christ himself. In other words, Good Friday is the chief exemplar of a pattern of sinful behavior that we continue to this very day.

When we shout “Crucify him, crucify him!” we are not, I think, standing in the place of some particular group of people. We are shouting “Kill God, kill God,” because the painful reality is that this is something we all find too easy to do. We need to stare into the abyss of our own sin so that we might remember our need of redemption. If we cannot name our own desperate sinfulness, we forget our need of salvation.

To mitigate the very real dangers of the Good Friday liturgy and the Passion narratives, we might offer teaching and preaching about anti-Judiasm and the deeper, more faithful reading of the Passion that sees a gracious God offering salvation to all and then being rejected by all people. We might, at the very least, place a note in the leaflet. Here’s what I noticed in the leaflet at Christ Church, New Haven several years ago.

Together with Christians around the world, we stand before the cross, in awe of what God has accomplished through these events, and are keenly aware that it is “for us and our salvation” that Jesus endures this death. We see ourselves in this story—our betrayals and denials, our hatreds and fears, which brings this story to its conclusion. In our best moments, we rise to stand with Mary and John at the foot of the cross and accept our responsibility towards each other. In our worst, we turn against each other, falsely calming our conscience by blaming the other. It has to be acknowledged that the Passion narratives and even the liturgies of Holy Week have been perverted to incite anti-Semitism. The Evangelists wrote the passion narratives out of their understanding of the events, and to some degree, under a growing tension as the early Christian community was becoming separate from its roots in the Jewish tradition. These ancient texts disturb and unsettle us, and the discomfort points to the burden of scapegoating and violence that we forget at our own peril and to the peril of our Jewish brothers and sisters.

We need to resist the temptation to avoid that which disturbs and unsettles us, for those same texts also convict us. If we imagine that these texts actually convict others, we are practicing the very kind of scapegoating that seeks to shift blame and let ourselves off the hook. The Passion narrative is, above all else, a story about how God’s free gift of love and redemption was rejected by humanity. The gift was not rejected by Jews, but by us all. Let us make no mistake: we continue to reject God’s free gift of love.

So this Good Friday — and, for that matter, this Palm Sunday — I hope the story of the Passion will stir us all. I don’t want to hear it. I need to hear it. We might be revolted, inspired, sickened, saddened. But let us certainly be convicted, for we crucified Jesus. We crucified Jesus.

Kyrie eleison.

Illustration: “Study for Crucifixion” (1947) by Graham Sutherland — in the Vatican Museums, from my flickr.

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15 Responses

  1. Verdery says:

    I remember several years ago when one of our choir members said that he couldn’t shout “Crucify him!” because he wouldn’t have done it had he been there.

    But I think–I’m afraid–that any of us would, given the circumstances. Either that, or we would, like most of the disciples, run away into the night, afraid of the Roman soldiers.

    This year I’ll be reading a few short bits of the narrative, one of which is Judas, a couple others of which are people mocking Jesus. And I’ll give it all I’ve got, because I could have done it then.

    Miserere mei.

  2. Helen Brotemarkle says:

    Scott, thank you for this post.

  3. M L Walker says:

    This is beautiful. It was inspirational to awaken to this not just for my morning, but to awaken to this so close to Holy Week. It has stirred up a feeling that I felt my first Holy Week observed only five short years ago. Thank you for this post, thank you for sharing from the heart.

  4. andrea says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post! It was inspirational and really made me think about faith. Should the need arise, what is your policy on being quoted? Thanks.

  5. Margaret Schwarzer says:

    Yes, exactly.

    I agree with all you write. WE killed God, and when I step into that moment, I recognize the continuum between Good Friday and my choices and life today.

    This was the bracing news I needed today.
    blessings.

  6. Carin Delfs says:

    Thanks Scott, I am thankful for this post underlining we are all indeed guilty. Christ have mercy.

  7. Donna Wessel Walker says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. None of us wants to hear this. We all need to hear it.

  8. Marsha Anderson says:

    I have enjoyed this post and would like to read more. Thank you for your thoughtful insights. The peace of the liturgy fills me with awe every Sunday. My service as a Eucharistic Minister and Lector is both joyful and humbling.

  9. Thomas says:

    Your reading is far more sophisticated than what the average church-goer understands or hears on Good Friday. Saying “We need to resist the temptation to avoid that which disturbs and unsettles us” seems a curiously bland way to refer to the Church’s horrendous history of stigmatizing, brutalizing, ghettoizing, forcibly converting, and murdering its Jewish cousins. That history has its roots in the Good Friday text.

  10. Several years ago (I believe Mel Gibson’s Passion was in movie theaters) I was invited by observant Orthodox Jewish friends to join them for a family funeral. Afterwards, we all ate at a local kosher restaurant. The young boy sitting opposite me asked me seriously, “who killed Jesus?” Always quick-witted, I asked, “What do your parents say?” He replied, “I want to know what you say.” Considering his age, I rejected my first response (I killed Jesus) and said “The Romans killed Jesus.” I don’t recall if I expanded on this at all (they were an occupation force and killed many people this way) – probably not, because of the child’s age. If he asked me today, I probably would say, “I killed Jesus” and be prepared for a long discussion. [This is the same child who, years before his family became observant, sat next to me in church to watch the Christmas pageant I had written. At a certain moment in the Eucharist, he turned to me and gasped “You drink BLOOD!?” I hurriedly assured him that there was wine in the cup. Informed he couldn’t have any, he asked why, then concluded it wasn’t kosher.]

  11. Katrina says:

    Excellent commentary. I think a lot of the problem stems from the fact that many people do not set the story into context, nor think about the political situation of the day. And, I know that in many, if not most, congregations, priests offer educational series designed to enlighten and inform the members of the church. We have had just such a series at our church and, sadly, the average attendance was 8-10 people. And most of these were aware of the political scene of the time. Our Rector talked about many of the points you have made, and we realized WE are “The Jews” of that time. We began to see all of the characters in the Passion Play from different perspectives and, at least for me, faith was deepened, and knowledge expanded. As Christians, we should be challenged to look beyond the surface of what we read and hear. Our priests are storehouses of knowledge and we would do well to take advantage of that.

  12. Dear Scott,

    A friend sent your post of 25 March, and thus introduced me to 7WD. I’ve subscribed! Thank you for this post and for the careful and generous thought behind it. You write what I also believe, at least for the most part.

    Let me ask you to consider this though. You say that “those same texts also convict us.” Yes, and I agree that they should. But to leave the texts in as they are is risky. Many people who rarely come to church may be present on Good Friday or Palm Sunday. They may not take a scholarly interest in what they hear. In fact, many of us have absorbed an anti-Semitic point of view, thanks to centuries of the Church’s teaching; and the language that blames the Jews may be so consonant with that — albeit subconscious — point of view that they don’t hear it.

    Additionally, it doesn’t seem pastorally sound to preach “against the text.” People need to hear why it is called “Good” Friday, and I agree with you that to do that properly we need to realize that we, ourselves, are the crucifiers. As far as trying not to support anti-Semitism goes, it helps, no doubt, to put a disclaimer in the bulletin, such as the one you cited from Christ Church, New Haven. I’m in doubt, though, if that weighs much against the solemn “Word of God.”

    It would be an act of great mercy if the Episcopal Church (and all others, of course!) would authorize, to be read in the liturgy, a translation of the Bible that removes the polemical language from the New Testament. Bible study classes can work with the Greek text and talk about the reasons for the anti-Jewish language. For the average church-goer, though, a translation that emphasized the theological and historical accuracy of the Scripture, rather than one-to-one linguistic correspondence, would be a help. That person could focus on what it means in their life.

    One last thing. You say, “We can and must look at the difficult places of the narrative and then step back and see the wider story of self-offering and boundless love.” Would we be less able to see the wider story if, for instance, we read “religious authorities” rather than “the Jews” where appropriate?

    Possibly I am writing from a stance of looking out into the world with concern for the effect our readings have on inter-religious relations and on feeding negative stereotypes; and a perfectly valid response to that would be: this is Christian worship for Christians. Although I take issue on a few of your points, overall I am grateful for what you have written. Let me close with thank you.

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