I saw this last week, but decided to spare my readers the stomach upset during the Easter Triduum. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, for United Church of Christ seminary professor and president, is trying her darndest to figure out just what the crucifixion of Jesus could possibly have been about. At the Washington Post, she opines:
What could be holy about this? Christianity has interpreted the sufferings of Jesus in many ways. The role of the crucifixion is central to what is called the “atonement,” the doctrine that discusses how human beings can be reunited with God, overcome the estrangement from God caused by sin, and be restored to relationship, i.e. “at-one-ment,” with God. All Christian theologies of the atonement stem from the fact of the crucifixion. Jesus underwent this horrific death. Why?
A common view is that Jesus had to suffer the great pain of beating, scourging and crucifixion, and die a horrible death, in order to pay for the sins of humanity. Sometimes this payment is considered a “ransom” paid to the devil, sometimes as an innocent substitute paying for someone else’s crime, and sometimes as the moral example of sacrificing for others.
Actually, all of those and others (Christus Victor and Grotius’ governmental theory, in particular) are typically recognized as being valid expression of the atonement. It’s a both/and, not an either/or, though some are more important and contain a greater degree of the truth than others. But these aren’t what Thistlethwaite is looking for.
The problem is that suffering, in these views of the atonement, becomes an end in itself. Even the moral theory of the atonement, the model of self-sacrifice of Jesus, has been used through human history to justify suffering in the name of religion. This becomes even more extreme in the classical theories of the atonement, the so-called “penal” or “ransom” theories. As I wrote about Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, in a chapter called “Mel Makes a War Movie,” the extreme focus on the violence of the crucifixion in the movie, to the almost complete exclusion of Jesus life and teaching, skews the Christian narrative toward an unhealthy focus on humanity’s overwhelming guilt for Jesus’ death. This leads to religious, cultural and political justifications of suffering for its own sake. [Emphasis added.]
She doesn’t even begin to understand The Passion of the Christ, nor, I suspect, does she understand the “classical” theories of the atonement. But leave that aside. The emphasized phrase is the really remarkable one. For one thing, who has ever said that suffering was “for its own sake?” Yes, there is popular misunderstanding of the Christian view of suffering, but I know of no “religious, cultural, and political justifications” for suffering that have anything to do with an accurate view of the crucifixion or atonement. The idea of “redemptive suffering,” on the other hand, takes what otherwise would be an evil and turns it to good. (The story of Maximilian Kolbe’s self-sacrifice through starvation in place of another at Auschwitz is one of the best examples of this I know.) One also wonders what a “healthy focus” on “humanity’s overwhelming guilt for Jesus’ death” would be, if in fact Thistlethwaite thinks that humanity bears any such guilt at all.
But despite these issues, there is a crucial truth about Good Friday that must be recognized. There is tremendous suffering in human life. That’s real.
What I think is holy about Good Friday is that as Christians we stop and remember the victims. Innocent human beings, and even the not-so-innocent, are routinely tortured and killed by the cruel and the unjust. I do not believe that God authorizes this suffering, but is God-with-us in the fact of suffering and death. I believe that really was God on that cross.
“Remembering the victims.” That’s what Good Friday is about–not Jesus’ victimization by a sinful world in particular, but victims in general. It’s not about God taking on the sin of the world, and freeing us from its guilt and bondage, it’s about Him joining us in the reality of suffering.
The sad thing is, both of those statements are true, they are just completely inadequate to express the fullness of what Godo Friday is about. It’s a shriveled vision of an event of cosmic proportions that has changed the world, changed history, changed us. It’s about what you’d expect from a faith that has become entirely political.