Oxymoron: Good Friday

For decades now I struggled with the name ascribed to the day in remembrance of Jesus’ death: Good Friday. In churches where I served, I carefully pushed against the tide calling the day “Holy Friday” or “God’s Friday”, anything but “Good” Friday because, quite frankly, it is not a good day and not a good story.

The story told on this day is gruesome and tragic. It is a story all to common, then and now, as innocents are made to suffer and die for no sin of their own. And it is not good.

The etymology is uncertain and some would claim that originally the day was called God’s Friday. Maybe so.  The more common explanation for the title is that Jesus’ suffering and death, though in itself tragic and sad, was necessary for the greater good of our salvation. Inasmuch as one accepts the common doctrine of sacrificial atonement, the day is (say it’s proponents) appropriately titled.

Most progressive and critically aware Christians today, however, reject the notion of substitutionary atonement on multiple grounds. For one thing we can’t square a compassionate life force with a demand for blood sacrifice. History’s way is watered with the blood of innocents shed in the name of Jesus; while anecdotal, the evidence is painfully clear that a violent God-character girds a violent peoples.

James Byrd, Jr.

We choose to believe that what is holy and sacred is not violent and (more importantly) does not seek or condone our violence. Which brings us to the corollary of why the doctrine of sacrificial atonement is fundamentally flawed – even were the source of life to need such sacrifice, such an offering is not something that is done for you. When we begin to seek other’s to share the most heinous burdens of life, the results are never good.

Certainly the concept of substitutionary atonement is relevant this week as so-called Christians enjoying their heterosexual marriages are prayerfully asking the Supreme Court to protect the sanctity (and privilege) of their marriages by denying the same to gay and lesbian couples.  The logic is that in order to protect the majority experience, it is justifiable that a minority suffer.  An uncritical acceptance of substitutionary atonement fails us not only as it propagates a fabricated need for atonement but worse, the concept that your suffering is necessary to alleviate mine.  This concept leads to scapegoats, not freedom and certainly not justice.  Would that Christians move beyond asking others to suffer for their beliefs.

Archbishop Oscar Romero

To be sure, the earliest followers of Jesus told stories of his suffering and death, this is not in question. Also true is that these stories bolstered the early followers as they too faced brutal circumstances. The value of these stories has been tried in times of persecution and found valuable. The problem is that these same stories, donned by the oppressor rather than the oppressed, become at best a macabre charade and at worst (as history attests) open the floodgates to tyranny. The infamous Passion Plays even now incite violence against Jewish communities and Mel Gibson’s bloody rendering, “The Passion of Christ”, offers no balm to the violence that continues in God’s name. A quick survey of Western history yields countless examples of the crucifixion story propagating violence but for those seeking a more careful critique, James Carroll obliges with his work, “Constantine’s Sword“.

The more ancient texts that informed Jesus’ life and teachings remind us not only that those who live by the sword also die by it (2 Samuel 2), but also that the sins of the father’s will be visited upon the sons (Exodus 34). There is nothing good about the story that will be shared on this upcoming Friday, and calling it so only elongates the suffering of those weighed down. More relevant for our time is the story that our Jewish brothers and sisters share this week, the story shared by the one we remember this week, a story also buried in this week we would call holy. The Passover story celebrates liberation, freedom, justice; it is a celebration worthy of our children. Following Jesus needn’t mean a recreation of his torture. Following Jesus, taking seriously his life and teachings, might more appropriately leads us to Seder tables this week where we bear witness to freedom and recommit ourselves to justice.

Considering the choices that are ours as we move through the theological minefield of colonial Christianity, it strikes me that the one good thing about Good Friday is the information the label provides. The dissonance of the label invites us to pause and make conscious choices about the stories we share with our children. There is nothing good about this tragic story nor the catastrophic consequences meted out over the millennia. Holy, yes. Belonging to God, yes.  But good?  No.

For those who take Jesus’ life and teachings to heart, Good Friday is an oxymoron that is simply not acceptable.

4 Replies to “Oxymoron: Good Friday”

  1. Without the events of this particular Friday, we would not have salvation so for me it is good. Jesus Christ died for my sins and the sins of the world making our salvation possible. Tragic – yes, gruesome – yes, holy – yes, and good – yes.

    1. If one accepts the premises of substitutionary atonement, your conclusion is works. But this is a premise that we do not have to accept, a premise that is quite antithetical to Jesus’ life and teachings and a premise that begets violence. I think, in Jesus name, we can do better.

  2. Last Easter, I had never heard the term “substitutionary atonement,” although I had grown up in a ‘religious’ family and have been employed by churches my entire adult life.

    The realization that there is an alternative to the violence requiring, blood spilling God in whom I was made to believe has been one the most spiritually life changing experiences I have ever had.

    I am eternally grateful to have answers to questions I didn’t even know I had, and to have questions that need no answers to be sacred.

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