Unitarian Good Friday
I don't often put other bits of my writing on here because I think that different media require a different genre of writing. My writing here is different from my sermons, or articles, or theological papers.
But the someone said to me that a paper I did for Faith and Freedom should be more widely circulated so I did a briefer version for the Inquirer, which should be out now, though I haven't seen it yet. I thought I'd share the Inquirer article, for those who might be interested.
What do we do with Good Friday?
Most, if not all, of our Unitarian congregations will celebrate Easter Sunday this year on the 23rd of March. But how many will mark Good Friday? Much fewer, I’m sure.
What does this say about us? What does it mean that we generally don’t mark Good Friday in our tradition? Perhaps we wouldn’t know what to say on Good Friday. What is it that Unitarians think about Good Friday, and the event it commemorates, the execution of Jesus of Nazareth?
The orthodox Christian understanding is that on the cross Jesus, somehow, ‘took away the sins of the world.’ Jesus’ death bridged a gap between God and humanity, making it possible for humans to be united with God: at-one-ment, atonement.
This never made a blind bit of sense to me. Statements such as ‘Jesus died to take away the sin of the world’ always seemed to me to be simply nonsensical. It is clear that there is still evil, suffering, death and sin in the world. Jesus’ death took away none of it. My inability to understand this doctrine was a major reason that I left the Church of England and became a Unitarian. I wanted a faith that concentrated on the life and ministry of Jesus, not doctrines about his death. This seemed to make a lot more sense to me.
There are many other criticisms that feminist theologians make of this doctrine of atonement. It can suggest that the best way to solve a problem is passive suffering rather than active resistance. Some theologians say that it paints a picture of divine child abuse. God ‘the Father’ is so angry at you and me for being sinners that he wants to punish us, yet Jesus ‘the Son’ steps in our place and is punished on our behalf. This suggests Jesus loves you, but God the Father doesn’t. This gets even more confusing when Trinitarian doctrine says that the Father and Jesus are one and the same thing! It all seems much easier to reject the whole thing, as I, and many Unitarians before me, have done.
And yet there is a deep power and fascination for many people in the symbol of the cross. The pull of this symbol is evident in the film, The Passion of the Christ that graphically illustrates Jesus’ bloody death. Why does this remain such a powerful symbol?
I do not think it is just because people have an unhealthy fascination with horrific gory sights. I think the power of this symbol is something to do with solidarity. This symbol says to millions: whatever you’re going through, God is there with you, because God has been through it too. God is with you in your suffering. If this is the reason for the power of the symbol of the cross, then I am confronted with an uncomfortable idea: maybe I ‘don’t get it’ because I’ve lived a relatively comfortable life, maybe those who suffer understand the cross in a way that those who do not suffer cannot. Maybe one of the reasons Unitarianism doesn’t appeal to more people is because we don’t have a religious language or symbol system that can deal with suffering. Perhaps the symbol of the cross, then, has something to offer us. Perhaps there is a way we can have a Unitarian approach to the cross, a Unitarian approach to Good Friday.
First I think we need to affirm that there is some truth in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. God is in the world. Jesus represents one place (but not the only place) where God’s incarnational nature is revealed. Jesus’ life and death reveal a God who experiences everything that we experience. Jesus’ suffering represents solidarity with our suffering. God is ‘with us’ and the cross can be a symbol that in our suffering God is ‘with us.’ I believe it is worth retaining a Christian theological understanding that teaches that the cross symbolises God’s presence with us in suffering.
But, does that mean that the cross is a symbol of salvation? No. The cross represents solidarity, but not salvation. Salvation does not happen on the cross. The story of the cross is not a model for our salvation or our work to defeat suffering in the world.
I believe we need to view the cross as a symbol of the problem (“sin”), rather than the solution (“salvation”). The cross did not take away sin. The cross is sin. It was a historical event of sin. And it remains a symbol of sin. The cross reminds us that we live in a sinful world. Did Jesus die for my sins? Perhaps we can say that in some metaphorical sense, but more importantly I must say that people today, in the developing world, and in the streets of our cities, are dying for my sins – or rather because of my sins, because of the interdependent web of communal sin that we live in: economic and political systems in which we all participate.
The cross is sin. It is a symbol that gives us a clearer picture of sin in the world. The fact is the world is full of crosses, full of instances of oppression and suffering. It is the refusal to acknowledge this spiritually that is a major weakness of our Unitarian liberal religion. People are suffering in our world and in our neighbourhoods and maybe in our households. If we throw out the cross then we are in danger of blinding ourselves to the suffering in the world. The cross is a symbol that demands we look suffering square in the face. That is its power.
But awareness of suffering is not the end. We should be made aware of suffering so that we can become committed to fighting against it. The process of overcoming suffering I call salvation. So what is salvation? Symbolically, if the cross is sin, then salvation is the defeat of the cross. Salvation is the Resurrection. The cross is a symbol of the suffering of the world. The Resurrection is a symbol of the defeat of the suffering of the world. Resurrection happens every time suffering is defeated, every time someone hungry is fed – that is Resurrection. Every time justice is achieved – that is Resurrection. Every time suffering is alleviated – that is Resurrection, that is salvation. Resurrection is a symbol of our commitment to defeat suffering, to tear down all the world’s crosses.
Historically we can say this: Jesus of Nazareth was murdered. He was unjustly arrested, tortured and executed. This was a sin, an evil event that should not have taken place. But that was not the end of the story. The story does not end with the death of Jesus. A few days later Jesus’ disciples experienced something we call the Resurrection. What that actually was is not really relevant. What matters is that the cross was not the end of the story. What matters is that a religious community arose after the Resurrection that was able to continue the ministry of Jesus. A community that, at its best, could continue Jesus’ ministry of love, justice and liberation. And we, as Unitarians, are heirs to that community.
So, for Unitarians Good Friday should be a time to reflect on the suffering of the world, to pray about the places of famine, oppression and war in the world. It should be a space to engage with the darkness of suffering, something Unitarians spend too little time doing. I once held a worship service on Good Friday at First Church in Boston. I decided to construct ‘Stations of the Cross’ around the room. These consisted of readings and artwork posted to the walls that worshippers were encouraged to read in their own time, while music was playing. Instead of the traditional story of Jesus’ Passion, I created stations describing martyrs from many different times and places. The different stations included readings about Dorothy Sang (murdered Brazilian nun), Harvey Milk (murdered gay rights activist), Jesus of Nazareth, Michael Servetus (Unitarian martyr), James Reeb (Unitarian martyr of the civil rights movement), Martin Luther King and Mansur al-Hallaj (Muslim mystic who was executed for his mystical teachings and political activism).
I believe it is essential for us to engage with the crosses of the world like this on Good Friday. For me, it is only after the darkness of Good Friday that the light of Easter makes sense. Easter becomes, then, an affirmation of ultimate hopefulness in our ability to fight against, and defeat, suffering. This gives us a powerful Gospel message for Easter. It avoids the pitfalls of either talking about a dubious historical event, or saying something incredibly bland about new flowers sprouting in spring. Rather Easter becomes a time for us to recommit ourselves to working for justice in the world. To recommit ourselves to work for the Resurrection of the world. Easter is a traditional time to reaffirm baptism vows, so it is very appropriate for Unitarians to use Easter to reaffirm our Unitarian vows to work for justice. This is the Good News of Easter: that suffering is real, but that there is hope beyond suffering, and that’s where we’re heading, that’s Resurrection.
This article is based on a paper in Faith and Freedom vol 60, part 1, no 164 (2007) 34 – 40.