Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Good Friday

“Good” Friday–It seems an odd name for the day Jesus was crucified by the Romans (in collusion with the temple elites of Jerusalem).  The English name is probably a corruption of “God’s Friday” the way that “Good-Bye” is a corruption of “God be with Ye.”

Baptists and other Free Church traditions often do not observe Maundy Thursday or Good Friday with services.  This, as I heard a Catholic theologian wisely observe, leads to the common Protestant sin of “raising Jesus too soon.”  Skipping from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of resurrection on Easter Sunday leads to a triumphalist theology–what Martin Luther referred to as a “theology of glory” rather than a “theology of the cross.” 

But I think the problem is worse than that.  Reading Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s popular The Last Week:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus Final Days in Jerusalem I have come to think that churches should have services all through Holy Week: Palm Sunday,  “Confrontation Monday” (focusing on the so-called “Cleansing” clash with the Temple System), “Teaching Tuesday” & “Teaching Wednesday,” Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.  This puts the cross and resurrection back in context.

Crucifixion was not the Romans’ normal method of execution. It was reserved for rebellious slaves and for insurrectionists against Roman rule.  (See Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross.) When Pilate places the sign “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” above Jesus’ head, he is not confirming his belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah from the line of David, but is accusing him of attempting to usurp Rome’s rule.  Most English translations say that Jesus was crucified between two “thieves,” but the ordinary Greek  word for “thief” was kleptos.  The word the Gospels use to describe the other two crucified that day is lestes which can mean a robber, but is more often used to mean “rebel,” or “revolutionary.” Today, we would say that Jesus was crucified between two terrorists.  The released man not crucified is identified as “Barabbas,” but this is not a personal name. It is Aramaic, “Bar abbas,” “Son of the Father.” “Barabbas” was probably a zealot making a messianic claim.  Pilate’s sign over Jesus’  head is his accusation that Jesus is also a terrorist.

Of course, Pilate misunderstands the nature of Jesus’ movement. The Jesus way is nonviolent and Jesus does not intend to simply replace one ruler with another (except God).  But Pilate does understand that Jesus and his movement is a threat to Rome and to all oppressive, imperial rule.  Christianity would be a threat to America, too, if it had not “tamed” and domesticated the churches.

By skipping from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, we don’t avoid the cross for a theology of glory as with the pattern of moving from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.  But it does de-politicize the cross and make Jesus a passive victim of God. God does use the crucifixion for our salvation. (See J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement; S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice:  A Theology of the Cross. ) But there were also human motivations in Jesus’ death.  We miss that–we miss  the way that Jesus’ message enraged the political powers.  After all, at Caesarea Philippi Jesus warned his disciples that his crucifixion could lead to theirs as well. We disciples are to take up our crosses–that means to live in Jesus’ nonviolent way even knowing that this may mean our persecution and deaths by the powers.

And the resurrection? Ah, but that must await a few days.  Yet as we contemplate the cross, we should know that not just Rome or her puppets in the Jewish “leadership” of the Temple system, but all of us are to blame.  (This is where Rene’ Girard’s views on mimetic desire are so helpful.  See Rene’ Girard, The Scapegoat.  Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. ) As the old hymn asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, we were all there.

By taking on the violence of the Powers and all of us without a violent response, Jesus ends the violence and the sin described in the scapegoating system.  This voluntary sacrifice ends sacrifice–ends the myth of religiously sanctioned violence and offers us all a saving alternative.  In that way, maybe this day of darkness really can be called “Good.”

April 10, 2009 - Posted by | atonement, Christian calendar, nonviolence, theology


  1. I had a similar thought earlier this week (about observing more than just the two Sunday events). I didn’t think about the Monday through Wednesday, but rather the Thursday through Saturday, although observing Monday through Wednesday could be a meaningful way to focus on the the week, and certainly appropriate as the Gospel of John focuses so much on that week.

    If I were to conduct services through Holy Week like that, I would add a Saturday service as well (or have the late Friday night service bleed over into Saturday too). No matter what you believe about where Jesus was that Saturday, it could be a meaningful day to focus on the what Christ did while on Earth (prior to his resurrection), and wait with expectation of the resurrection, realizing that the disciples were mourning, confused, and pondering all that Jesus had taught them.

    Comment by brochris | April 11, 2009

  2. Michael, we have a Noon Holy Week service every day of Holy Week, concluding with a Friday evening Good Friday service. We’ve been doing that for 35 years. It draws a small but committed crowd and I think the effect over these many years is that we do NOT skip over Good Friday for a cheapened Easter. It comes as the Great Surprise that it is, God’s Life created out of Death, the reality that transforms fear into courage.

    Thank you for your blog, your faith practices, your perspective and blessings at Easter.
    roger paynter
    fbc, austin, tx

    Comment by austinokie | April 11, 2009

  3. Thank-you, Austinokie.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 11, 2009

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