Good Friday

The Cross

Dr. Mark Poindexter

“Then they led him out to crucify him.” 

I don’t know what time you will read this post.  You might read it at nine o’clock in the morning, which is the very hour he was crucified.  In the gospel of Mark, the words that follow the scene of crucifixion are these, they “divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.”   I am taken back by the cold practicality of those words; “He won’t need them anymore.  Somebody ought to make use of them.”    

Maybe it is noontime when you happen across these words.  That’s the hour when darkness came and just sat on the earth.  Heavy, smothering, consuming darkness. 

You might be reading these words at three in afternoon.  That is when he cried out with a loud voice, “My God. My God, why have you forsaken me?”  In Mark’s gospel those are the last words he spoke, before he drew his final breath.  He had been betrayed and denied by those closest to him.  Judged by the authorities and beaten by the soldiers.  Mocked and ridiculed by those who passed by.  And now, with his dying breath, he cries out of utter abandonment, “Where is God in this?”

It might be in the evening when you find these words.  The hour or two before sunset.  The time when his dead body was removed from the cross and laid in a tomb that was sealed with a rock.  Cold, hard, final. 

Whatever time it is that you might read these words, this Friday of Holy Week is the day of the cross, the day of darkness, the day of death.  Too often and too easily, I believe, too much of the Christian world has tuned the cross into a slogan which includes a prize for us.  You know, “Jesus died for our sins, so we get to go to heaven.”  “Jesus paid the price, so we don’t have to.”   Though such slogans find their origins in portions of the epistles, their simplicity denies the complexity of Jesus’ crucifixion and the fullness of possibilities for meaning.  We should also remember that the epistles offer a reflection back on the cross.  On the day it happened, the Friday when the spikes were driven, the clothes divided, and his body was limp, there wasn’t much theological interpretation happening.  There was fear, there was darkness and there was death – brutal, cruel and painful.

We have prettied the cross up over time. Made it gold and polished it and placed it out as decoration.   We wear it as a piece of jewelry around our neck or hanging from our ear.  Embroidered onto a necktie it becomes part of our formal dress.  A ticket to heaven for all who believe. Sometimes we Christians call ourselves “People of the cross,” but what does that mean when we have moved so far away from the historical reality of what the cross was.

Theological reflection upon the cross, asking “What does this mean,” is not a one and done deal with the results being able to fit on a bumper sticker.  As I think about the possible meanings of the cross – there are the ideas that innocence sometimes suffers, that truth can be sacrificed, and that faithfulness to the path of God might well be a very lonely and painful journey.  On this day, above all days, I don’t want to pretty the cross up and make it attractive.  I want to try and look at it in its cruel, raw, historical reality.  Because when Jesus says, “Anyone who wants to follow me, needs to deny himself and take up his own cross” it’s not the pretty and polished cross we have made it.  It is the bloody, raw, state-sponsored instrument of death that he had in mind.

Bonhoeffer writes that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).   I am haunted by the cross and what it means.  Both the cross that Jesus died on and the one he calls me to. . . .     And yet, I know that the very reason I am able to ask what the cross means is because the cross, in all its awfulness, was not the final word.   For that, may we be grateful. 

Between Death and Redemption

By Joe Pusateri

As we approach Easter, I have been confronted many times with many variations of the same theological question.  None posed it more directly than my own five-year old, who asked, “Why did God kill Jesus?”

When I was called into the ministry, I vastly underestimated the amount of time that I would spend trying to explain to people the difference between oppressive empires and God.  Of course, as a cynic, I expect empires to attempt to wield the power of God.   I never dreamed how successful the former would be at impersonating the latter.

Ten years ago this month, the leaders of our nation made the decision to invade Iraq.  To the 24-year old I was at the time, the official case made by the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein’s regime was an imminent threat to the security of the United States and the free world seemed compelling enough.  I was no enthusiastic supporter of war, but only because I was raised to never be an advocate of war.  I was effectively nudged, however, into the complicit space of reluctant non-resistance.  I figured, “I guess it’s inevitable.  War is not preferred, but I guess we have no choice.”

Now that a decade has passed, I can say only with shame that it took me quite a few years to realize that my own lack of critical examination allowed me to stay ambivalent and silent while more than a few brave souls risked alienation in a culture of rabid fear and patriotism in protest as the so-called War Against Terror opened a new front.  I can speak boldly now against the sins of my nation’s foreign policy, beating my chest before like-minded pacifists, over the silent bodies of 4000 American soldiers and perhaps half a million dead Iraqi civilians.

Across the media, and from both of the dominant political camps, the range of reflection and criticism of the war seems to fit all within the one statement of “it was too expensive and mismanaged.”  Iraq, like Vietnam, was simply another example of the government’s inability to control costs.  The doves cry out that the problems of Iraq/the Middle East are better solved by methods less costly than war, while the hawks believe that critical mistakes such as disbanding the army or failing to secure weapons depots were the unfortunate mistakes that led to an insurgency and its collateral costs.  Conspicuously absent is the suggestion that our obligation to hasten the end of the “problems” of the Middle East is perhaps to stop funding or arming oppressive regimes, especially if the US government expects citizens to take seriously its pledge to uphold the ideals of democracy and human rights.

And I am offended, albeit not surprised, that there is no suggestion by anyone that the United States government was morally wrong in its preemptive war against Iraq.  What made the US misadventure in Iraq a failure was not its human and financial costs, not its faulty intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction, and not its strategic miscalculations.  What made the US War in Iraq a failure was blatant disregard for human life, its disregard for the principle of universality (namely the idea that one cannot impose standards on another that one is not willing to meet itself) and the immediate disregard of international law and the consent of the governed.  To this last point, I strongly urge one to consider that throwing aside international structures that were designed to hold Nazi war criminals to account is to share moral real estate with the Nazis, and to resist the notion that effective propaganda in the lead up to the war counts as “consent of the governed.”

Finally, as a clergyperson, I have the sacred duty of looking into the eyes and holding the hands of human beings from their birth to death.  I hold the sanctity of life and the dignity of personhood in the highest regard, regardless of race, gender, nation of origin and political commitments.  To those who would accuse me of dishonoring the brave citizens who have risked and given their lives under the orders of this country, I take great offense.  To the contrary, I believe that exploiting the dedication and oath of a soldier is far more dishonorable (and dehumanizing) than to call to account those who trample law, order and decency and send soldiers away from their families and neighbors in order to defend imperial doctrine.

As a Christian, the most faithful thing I can do is speak truth at the right time, at the right place, and to the right people.   It is easy to take a stand against a war machine that is already far out of sight, which has already crushed one nation and endangered the world.  Even as the discussion of nuclear annihilation floats carelessly around the Korean peninsula and US drones bomb peasants in Pakistan, it is a piece of cake to stake a claim for peace.  It is easy to defend a case for justice and reconciliation with freethinking adults in an open society, even with those who disagree.  What keeps me up at night is the prospect of having to endlessly get down on one knee to explain to the five-year old daughters of the world that God did not murder Christ, that it was people who killed Jesus.  People like us, who were told they were doing the right thing for God and country, for law and order.  God, on the other hand, is the one who raised him, and will surely one day raise all of the crucified Iraqi children, sacrificed American soldiers and all the rest of us from the terrible weight of war.