Good Friday – Christ crucified. After nearly 2000 Good Fridays can there be anything fresh to say about the cross (and does there need to be)?
One understanding of Good Friday is that on the cross, God – the Lord, maker, judge and ruler of everything – identifies with the very least, the lowest, the worst of humanity. On the cross God, in Jesus, takes on all our shame, our brokenness, our hurt, our badness, our alienation – all the worst and most unacceptable in us. That’s pretty flipping amazing.
But I think it also has some surprising – even shocking – implications.
God of both sides?
On the one hand it surely does mean, as has often been said, that in Jesus God identifies with the victims, the oppressed and the abused, the marginalised and the minorities; with the have-nots and the powerless. That’s clearly good news for a great number of people.
But does it not also mean that God in some way identifies too with the oppressors, the abusers, the villains – even the very worst people – of history and of today’s world? If God’s salvation really is for all, and if on the cross he really does take on our sin and shame – all the very worst in us – then surely that means he identifies with the very worst of us too, the people we see as utterly evil and beyond all possibility of redemption?
If so, on the cross, Jesus somehow impossibly holds together the victim and the perpetrator, the oppressed and the oppressor – and furthermore makes us realise that we’re all, always, both. We’re all on both sides at different times and in different situations. There are no entirely guiltless people, who have caused no harm or suffering to others (or at the very least to themselves); and there are no people entirely beyond sympathy, no people who have never suffered at the hands of others or of the world. At the cross we’re all levelled and brought together.
It’s often been said that each one of us in a sense nailed Jesus to the cross, including by our mistreatment of others (“what we did to the least of his brothers”). And at the same time each of us has been mistreated by other people, and Jesus takes this to the cross too, identifying with us in our roles as both aggressor and victim, and so enabling full healing and reconciliation.
Over the past couple of years, #MeToo has become a powerful cry for the victims of male abuse. And naturally I, like most others, want to distance myself as much as possible from the Harvey Weinsteins and Jimmy Saviles of the world – ‘I’ve never done anything like that and I never would’.
Yet in the light of the cross, maybe I need to acknowledge that I am in some way part of the problem, tacitly and implicitly if not actively and directly. Deep down I know I’m not fully free from all of the sexism, racism, classism, homophobia and other toxic prejudices, fears and lusts that lead to the abuse, marginalisation and mistreatment of my fellow human beings – people Jesus loved and died for. Maybe I have to whisper, shamefacedly and reluctantly, ‘Me too’ on the side of the perpetrators and abusers. Maybe.
We’re all sinners – what a relief!
Of course the message that ‘we’re all sinners’ comes across so negatively. But seen from another angle I think it can be a tremendous relief. We’re all ‘sinners’, we’ve all messed up, we’re all failures – not just us, but everyone else too, even the people we most admire and wish to emulate, the ones who we’re sure would never have any horrible prejudices or do anything shameful. And if we already feel deep down like we’re bad, that we’re unacceptable failures or misfits, then to know that we’re actually in the same boat as absolutely everyone else is pretty encouraging.
And it means we can stop pretending (at least to ourselves), and stop beating ourselves up when we fail (as we inevitably will). It’s not that most people are good and we’re going to get found out as being the bad people we are – we’re all in it together, and we can stop pointing the finger at each other to try and avoid exposure ourselves. And we can start being merciful to others who are also failures and who have bad thoughts and feelings and attitudes just like the ones we want to deny we have.
And of course the further good news is that although we might all be equally ‘unacceptable’ from the perspective of perfection, at the cross we’re actually all completely accepted; loved, welcomed, forgiven, healed, included. At the cross we are both guilty and forgiven; judged yet released; exposed yet accepted and welcomed. The cross reaches across all divides, all that separates us and imprisons us, all that puts us beyond the reach of other humans, and of love.
G.K. Chesterton characterised the shape of the cross as an intersection of irreconcilables – of love and anger, of justice and mercy, of guilt and forgiveness. St Paul talks of it in a similar way as the place where all our dividing walls are torn down and old enemies are united – God and human first of all, and so also Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, old and young, black and white, gay and straight, left-wing and right-wing; even victim and aggressor.
At the cross we are re-united with others and also with the broken, shameful parts of ourselves that we’ve tried to split off and deny – the parts that are aggressor not victim, villain not hero, loser not winner; or that are ugly or weak or just weird. At the cross we can at last be whole again.
Though of course when we actually come to try and live that out it’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds…