Reclaiming Good Friday: Salvation without Divine Violence

Reclaiming Good Friday: Salvation without Divine Violence March 19, 2015

What do you do with Good Friday and the Cross when you’ve abandoned the centrality of the doctrines of substitutionary atonement and the divine necessity of Jesus’ death? Like many progressive Christians, I grew up hearing the mantras “Jesus died for our sins,” “Jesus died so that we might have eternal life and escape God’s wrath,” “Jesus paid the price for our salvation,” and “sin deserves death and Jesus stood in our place.” Recently, I saw a billboard with the stable and manger and three crosses in the background, with the description “born to die.”

Without reflecting, many 21st century Christians, who regularly use social media, ponder photos from the Hubble telescope, go to Sikh and Hindu doctors, and believe that humankind emerged from a multi-billion year process of evolution, assume the following statements reflect the essence of Christianity:

• Human sin brought death into the world.
• We are born steeped in this original sin.
• Human sin deserves divine punishment.
• Jesus came to break our bondage to sin.
• Jesus’ death was foreordained and Jesus lived his adult life knowing he was going to die on the Cross.
• Jesus’ death is God’s way of securing our salvation.
• Only a divine sacrifice can free us from sin and insure eternal life, rather than eternal damnation.
• The only pathway to salvation is a personal relationship with Jesus, demonstrated by an explicit affirmation of our sin and the sole salvation of Jesus Christ.

Many believe that these are the only possible Christian understandings of the cross, forgiveness of sin, and salvation, and have left Christianity because these beliefs no longer reflect their personal experience or offend their ethical and spiritual sensibilities. They yearn for alternative ways of viewing the cross and the nature of divine sacrifice. They are looking for good news beyond God’s sacrifice of his son for salvation.

Although these “orthodoxies” may have provided assurance for us once upon a time, to many of us who still call ourselves Christian, they no longer make sense, nor do we believe in a God who requires the death of “his” son to secure our salvation. We also see divine grace operating in other religious traditions and in the experience of faithful agnostics. Still, many of us attend Good Friday services; some of us even preach at such services, despite our theological and liturgical reservations. Our quest to be faithful as we remember Good Friday begs the question: Can we as progressives “redeem” Good Friday in a way that affirms the interplay of divine love, human creativity, and human brokenness, while avoiding dubious theologies that assume salvation requires violence, including the predestined death of God’s only Child?

We do not need to celebrate divine violence on Good Friday or any occasion, but we live in a world characterized by implicit and explicit violence against the Earth, child and adult slavery and sex trafficking, political gridlock, disparity between the wealthy and vulnerable, racism and injustice, and political unrest. When we open the doors of perception, we are only too aware that our precarious planetary situation is a result of human decision-making and the machinations of powers and principalities. We recognize that we need a loving power greater than ourselves to save us, and we also know that our salvation and the future of the earth depend on our willingness to be actors, rather than passive observers in the healing of the earth. We need theologies that recognize that Jesus’ saving action inspires our own willingness to become partners with God in saving the earth.

I believe that we can creatively remember Good Friday in worship and ritual by reflecting on the interplay of our personal and institutional shortcomings and God’s passionate companionship. “Were You There When They Crucified by Lord?” is the quintessential Good Friday hymn. Of course, none of us were there physically. But, we are all part of an ambiguous history that persecutes prophets and promotes celebrities. On Good Friday, we can ponder all the little crucifixions going on right now in our world, often unnoticed, but very real – death dealing actions that lead to melting polar icecaps, global climate change and the potential cataclysm that awaits our children and children’s children, complacency at mass starvation and genocide, apathy at sex trafficking and human slavery, our addiction to oil and gun ownership, and the list goes on, even before we explore our own personal ambiguities and culpability in the subtle violence of everyday life.

Even though Jesus’ death was neither foreordained nor necessary to appease God’s wrath, we can recognize that we are no better morally and spiritually than many of those who shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion, stood idly by doing nothing to prevent it, and implicitly sentenced Jesus by their involvement in political and religious institutions. Are our political leaders – and we as USA citizens – any more moral than Pilate or the Jewish religious leaders? We also operate out of self-interest and are willing for many to suffer or die for the “American way of life.”

Good Friday also affirms the tragic beauty of God’s relationship with the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from the vantage point of a prison cell, proclaims that only a suffering God can save and Alfred North Whitehead speaks of God as the fellow sufferer who understands. Throughout the centuries, Christians have debated the doctrine of patripassianism, the belief that God the Father suffers on the Cross with the Son, Jesus. While patripassianism, or divine suffering, has been labeled a heresy, based on the belief that the divine nature is incapable of suffering and that Jesus’ suffering touched his humanity but left his divinity unsullied, I believe that the deeper heresy is the belief that God does not suffer with the world. A changeless, unfeeling, and apathetic God can neither heal nor save. In contrast to a passionless deity, a meaningful vision of Good Friday proclaims that God suffered – the whole of God suffered – on the cross and in every moment creaturely suffering.

Difficult as it is to admit our complacency and culpability, we can on Good Friday answer “yes” to the question, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” We can also say “yes” to the grace that feels our pain and regret, the pain of those broken by the world’s greed and complacency, and live in the hope that the One who feels also forgives and transforms, and enables us to rise up with new energies for global healing. Then the cross becomes the pathway to responsible partnership with God in seeking healing and justice for our good earth and its human and non-human creation.

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  • BrotherRog

    Excellent. Simply excellent.
    While, we’re at it, let’s reclaim Easter too!
    “A Kinder, Gentler, More Grown-Up Easter” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2012/04/a-kinder-gentler-more-grown-up-easter/

    Roger Wolsey, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

    • WeldonScott

      Yes, let’s reclaim the spring equinox celebration named after the Germanic fertility goddess named Eostre.

      • Johannes Richter

        The ‘Easter-Eostre’ link may sound convincing in English or German, but Christians who know it as Pascha and trace the feast back to its Passover roots are less impressed by that etymology. Using faux mythology to discredit both pagan and Christian celebrations is akin to saying there was never anything to celebrate by either group.

        • WeldonScott

          You’re still stuck with the name, and no amount of dodge-and-weave can escape that. LOL

          • Johannes Richter

            I’m Afrikaans

          • WeldonScott

            So? “Paasfees” is just lunar astrotheology, Jewish style, just like Ishtar-Esther-Easter-Eostre is Babylonian-Jewish-Pagan astrotheology. Keep dodging and weaving there.

          • Johannes Richter

            I’m really not sure what your argument is. That the symbolism is always astrological, even when it isn’t anymore? That the meanings of words never shift and Easter is somehow still pagan?
            Either way, here’s a recent article about the source of the Eostre connotation – it seems like very precarious ground to base your argument on: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/23/easter-pagan-roots

          • WeldonScott

            I’m not really sure what your excuses are. Either way, Easter isn’t in the Bible, but that’s what it is called in most of Christianity.

  • Shiphrah99

    I’m reminded of the teaching (sorry, I’ve forgotten by whom) in response to the question, Where was God during the Holocaust? God was in the camps, suffering along with us.

    • WeldonScott

      Not much of a “god.”

    • Fusina

      I still have hope that there is an afterlife. Because I have a lot of questions I want answered. Uh, and hi

      • Shiphrah99
  • Kwane

    an article about Christ and the cross and not a single verse of the Bible is cited?

    “Then the cross becomes the pathway to responsible partnership with God in seeking healing and justice for our good earth and its human and non-human creation.” the Biblical narrative leaves the objective reader with the picture that the cross was God’s unilateral act; i am flummoxed by the writer’s ‘responsible partnership’ conclusions…really and truly bewildered by it…happily and fortunately the writer is mere man like me, so i can jettison his ‘responsible partnership’ take…

  • Kevin Ruffcorn

    Thank you for your reflections on the message of Good Friday. I too agree that the “substitutionary gospel” does appear to be theologically sound and certainly ring tinny on the ear of those outside of the church. You have given me some ideas that I can use as I prepare my Good Friday sermon and seek to share a message that speaks to the heart and mind of my congregation.

  • ReSpears3

    So much heartbreakingly false teaching here, but I’ll concentrate on the following statement, since it’s so completely and utterly at odds with Scripture: “(W)e also know that our salvation and the future of the earth depend on
    our willingness to be actors, rather than passive observers in the
    healing of the earth.”

    But the Apostle Paul reminds us: “For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph. 3:8-10)

    I don’t see man acting at any point in the process to do anything to bring about his salvation. God provides the faith necessary to receive His grace, which brings our salvation, which is intended FOR our good works — which, by the way, God prepared for us ahead of time. It’s God working in the beginning, God working in the middle and God working in the end.

    We bring nothing to this party. It’s all God. That surely makes some folks uncomfortable, because it requires them to acknowledge they’re not the center of the universe, the reason for its existence. Some of them even get angry enough about it that they choose to go “looking for good news beyond God’s sacrifice of his son for salvation.”

    God has a word for that process: rebellion. And it doesn’t turn out well for the rebels.

  • Peach McDouall

    I would posit that a Christian can jettison substitutionary atonement w/o necessarily becoming a Process Theologian or a patripassian. The Orthodox Churches and most Episcopalians manage this feat w/o blinking. The soteriology of Matthew’s gospel rests upon Jesus completely fulfilling the Torah (which had to be done and which humanity had proved completely unable to do), not upon the sacrifice (e.g., as in Hebrews). The Resurrection proves that even the power of Death can’t defeat God’s Truth/Love/Justice, and that if we choose that path, no matter what happens, we are invincible as well (any martyr will tell you the same). Our baptism into Christ graciously makes us part of Christ’s Invincible Resurrected Body. In this view of At-One-Ment, the crucifixion was foreseen rather than ordained (there is a huge difference). Just as we know how dangerous it is to fearlessly speak Truth to the world’s powers-that-be, a Triune and Omnipotent God would know how the human power structure would respond to the Incarnate Word.

  • Cathy

    Gave a similar message about the suffering God on Palm Sunday and was accused as having doctrinal mistake. Now feel not alone or lonely after reading yours. Thanks a lot!