With condolences to all victims of violence and their families.
Last Sunday, a short while after the Passion Gospel was ended in churches across the nation, across the world, a man took a shotgun to the parking lot of a couple of Jewish community establishments and killed three randomly targeted people.
What does that have to do with reading the Passion Gospel? The man was reliably insane, repeatedly reported as an extremist and a hatemonger. We don’t know but that the timing might have been a coincidence. So what does it have to do with us, gathered here on Good Friday?
Try this: it didn’t take long, it took less than a generation for Jesus’ message of love, of forgiveness even from the cross, of prayer for an enemy, peace in times of persecution; it didn’t take long for those words to get buried under a mountain of righteous and ironic indignation on behalf of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
It is a frighteningly short step from righteous indignation to revenge.
In the garden, it is Peter who strikes out at a slave, a scapegoat for his anger and fear. But Jesus will have none of it. Jesus would die before he would have anything to do with such denigrating, violent oppression of another human being.
I don’t believe that any of us here is a crazy extremist, but we have all used other people, or groups of people, even people in our own families sometimes as scapegoats for our own anger and fear. We use the language of code to test out who is one of us and who is one of them. At our worst, we twist their differences from us into excuses for righteous indignation against them. We use the cross as a weapon with which to stake others through the heart, or we stand by in silence as others do the dirty work for us. Yet, in the words of James H. Cone, author of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned and tortured.”*
Every time we use the cross, or stand idly by as the cross is abused as a weapon of oppression, prejudice or hatred, against anyone, we crucify God anew.
Sometimes we try justify our hatred of one thing, one group, one aspect of our humanity by our love of something higher; but real love does not beget hatred. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently illustrated on a radio phone-in show how using the cross as a tool for the appeasement of oppressors can land us in the moral marshlands, wet, sticky and muddy. “What is truth?” asked Pilate. It cannot be constructed out of lies. It cannot be based on insulting others, or undermining their stories, or denying their dignity.
The Archbishop was right about one this: how we talk about one another matters. How we are heard and seen to treat one another matters immensely. “By this shall they know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “that you love one another.”
The services for two of the victims of last Sunday’s violence took place today, Good Friday, I am told, at a church called the Church of the Resurrection. I am a big fan of irony, but I think that we may be sinking in it by now.
On Good Friday we celebrate the cross, yes, we are so thankful that Jesus was willing to suffer for us. But we are called to do more than to stand at the foot of the cross and wait for him to die so that we might live.
As Lent closes, we are called, again, to give up more than we ever have succeeded in leaving behind us before, and not only for forty days. We are called to give up those voices inside us that cry violence, that cynically scapegoat, that secretly insult our neighbor,that would crucify Christ anew. We are called to give up our pride, our paltry righteous indignation, our revenge, recognizing that these were not what Jesus chose to employ, but grace, and love. We are urged to give up using the cross as a weapon of oppression or as a tool for appeasement, allowing that Jesus intended that symbol of hopeless inhumanity to be a beacon of hope to all people.
We are called to take up the cross of love, to bear with gentleness the burdens of others, to forgive as often as we fall, to help one another, to hold one another up, as though we were Jesus’ mother and the disciple that he loved, leaning on one another at the foot of the cross.
Jesus had told them. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
Drawn to the foot of the cross, in sorrow, in trembling, let us draw close to one another in our grief and gratitude, and stay awhile with Jesus.
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2011), 27