A Good Friday Reflection
This is essentially a political blog on Fiji. Readers seeing this Good Friday article may suspect a change in direction. If they read on, they will see just how relevant Fr Kevin Barr's religious reflections are to Fiji's political situation.
Kevin J. Barr
Too many Christians today have spiritualised the death of Jesus and are satisfied to say simply that Jesus died for our salvation – “the blood of the Lamb has washed away our sins”. While this may be true theologically, these Christians tend to ignore the stark reality of the gospel story and the real historical context in which Jesus lived, preached and died. Moreover this approach can keep us trapped in a devotional Christianity often unrelated to the world in which Jesus lived and in which he preached his message of the Kingdom.
The events of Jesus’ passion and death need to be seen within the context of his times and the complexity of his historical context. We need to understand realistically the reason why Jesus was put to death. The stark fact is that Jesus was killed because of what he said and did.
Jesus, through his message of the Kingdom of God, spoke of a new way of structuring relationships which required a radical change of mind and heart and challenged those with wealth and power in the society of his day - including the religious leaders. He scandalized many “religious” people because he spent time with those who were rejected as “sinners” and was seen as the friend of tax collectors, prostitutes and outcasts. He lifted up the poor and encouraged people to have compassion and reach out with love towards people of any race, religion or social level. He turned upside down the way people viewed the Law, the Temple and the Sabbath – the great institutions of Jewish society. He even publicly challenged the sincerity and integrity of some of the religious leaders of his day.
But above all his preaching about the Kingdom of God challenged the accepted values of his time. Instead of stressing the importance of having riches, power and prestige, Jesus wanted his followers to share their wealth with others and place themselves at the service of others. All this did not make Jesus very popular with the religious leaders and those who were wealthy – those who profited from the status quo.
His message was welcomed by some but caused friction with others because they felt that Jesus was turning their world upside down and calling into question the dominant values of their society and the securities that they had accepted for so long. He challenged the rich elites of his day as well as the religious leaders to think and act differently. They considered him to be dangerous and thought he should be got rid of.
Jesus called on people to change. Some did, but many did not. Those who would not change and stubbornly clung to a system which ensured them power, wealth and authority ultimately prevailed and Jesus was crucified.
Monika Hellwig (1983: 12ff) states clearly the danger that Jesus found himself in because he challenged the “establishment” and called for a radical change of heart from his followers:
“Jesus was most certainly not crucified for staying quietly at home to say his prayers and minding the carpentry business. The preaching and ministry of Jesus was in every way a challenge to the unjust structures of oppression and therefore in every way a provocation to those who profited from them.”
One of the huge implications of spiritualizing the death of Jesus is that Christians today often refuse to acknowledge their need to challenge the injustices they see in the world around them. Those motivated by an unrealistic devotional Christianity take a passive stance towards the problems of the world and remain unchallenged by Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God.
Consequences of challenging injustice
While Good Friday recalls the crucifixion of Jesus, we should also remember that Jesus was not the only one who was killed for challenging and questioning the injustices in his society and presenting an alternative vision of how the world could be.
We have people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Archbishop Oscar Romero – all of whom were assassinated. We have Nelson Mandela who spent 28 years in prison. All these individuals fought against powerful forces of injustice and sought to make the world a better place.
We should not forget also the classical prophets of ancient Israel whom Marcus Borg (2004:130) describes as “God-intoxicated voices of protest against the human suffering created by the unjust systems imposed by the powerful and wealthy”. They also suffered ridicule, rejection and persecution.
So, what happened to Jesus continues to happen today and throughout history. Those who challenge the vested interests of the powers-that-be and expose the unjust structures of oppression, those who seek to “pull down the mighty from their thrones”, those who challenge the rich to share and care for their brothers and sisters in poverty, those who challenge the hypocrisy of powerful religious authorities, those who accept people of all races and religions as their brothers and sisters … these are not only unpopular but find themselves persecuted in one form or another. As Trish Mc Bride notes:
“When one speaks out for truth, justice and compassion against the vested interests of the powers-that-be, crucifixion, literal or metaphorical is a highly likely outcome. “
A new world is possible! However, when anyone challenges the powerful forces vested in those with wealth and power, there is bound to be a strong reaction from those who profit from the status quo.
The encouraging thing is that, although those who worked for a new world may have been crucified, assassinated or imprisoned, that was not the end. The message has been delivered and the courageous example of the messenger lives on to inspire us today so that we continue to question and challenge injustice and oppression and to fight for a better world.
Allan Boesak, the South African activist against apartheid, once remarked:
“When we go before God to be judged, God will ask us: ‘Where are your wounds?’ And, if we say: ‘We have no wounds!’ God will ask us: ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for?’”