Good Friday. The tragedy at the climax of the gospels that none of the characters come out of looking good. The somber holiday that brings us face-to-face with the ugliest parts of our common humanity.
I have long cherished this holiday as an opportunity to reflect on my own individual sins and sorrows, the ways that my own behavior reflects Judas or Pilate or Peter. But this year, I find myself noticing the communal aspects of the story, the ways that our collective behavior reflects that of the chief priests or the soldiers or the crowd.
The Chief Priests
Blame starts, as it almost always should, with the spiritual leaders of the time. Priests were held to a higher standard in the Old Testament; God takes out a half a chapter in the last book of the Old Testament to rebuke them in particular because of their broad influence over many (Malachi 2:1-9). In this moment, though, the leadership was not merely inadequate, but far worse:
It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” (Mark 14:1-2 ESV)
These are the planners; they had been preparing for this moment for days, months, or years. They needed the cover of darkness and a sedated, hungover crowd the day after a big feast. Yet even in this moment, they aren’t prepared.
Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:55-64 ESV)
Failing their first plan of catching Jesus sinning, they instead attempt the smear tactic of raising so many even inconsistent complaints that he could not possibly respond to all of them. Sound familiar?
This chain of events is just dripping with irony. The priests choose to strike under the cover of Passover, not knowing that Jesus himself intended to be the sacrificial Passover lamb whose blood would save. The lie they spin centers on his promise to destroy a temple and build it again in three days, and only after the fact do they realize that he could have meant himself. The master planners are reduced to mere puppets in the hands of God.
How is our collective spiritual leadership today? Barna recently compiled several studies into a book called The State of Pastors, describing how pastors today face a “credibility gap” with the broader culture. No one respects those who preach the Word of God anymore, and it isn’t hard to see why, given the constant images of fallen celebrity pastors, political controversy, and covering up child sex abuse in the Catholic church.
But it goes beyond pastors, since many different professions play this priestly role in modern culture. More than pastors, the most frequent voices in our lives belong to cable news anchors, pundits, talk radio hosts, and late-night comedians, and their services aim to meet more and more of our emotional and spiritual needs.
However, the events of the last year have revealed how little prognostication such ‘experts’ truly have, and the angst in our current zeitgeist shows the limits of turning to late-night for catharsis. From Brexit to Trump, confident pundits were forced to eat crow throughout all of last year. Trump is no Jesus, but the media still made plenty of mistakes in their coverage along the way.
Maybe you and your friends don’t feel like spiritual leaders or self-proclaimed experts. Fortunately, those aren’t the only groups at fault on Good Friday.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. (Matthew 27:27-31 ESV)
The soldiers aren’t part of this story for ideological reasons. They don’t care about the theological differences they might have with Jesus; they’re just here for the lulz. They pick up on this moniker he’s getting of “king of the Jews” and decide to make a skit out of it. They decide it’d be funny to give him a fake crown made of thorns and jam it into his head, to beat him with his own staff. It’s all just fun and games, right?
We don’t have to be literal soldiers today to behave like this, although Abu Ghraib showed that we could be. There is a certain group spirit that takes over when masses of people, frequently men, gather in battalions like this. Think Lord of the Flies, if you’ve read it: While the individuals in the group might seem perfectly fine, together they can morph into terrifying beasts.
Today, we don’t assemble to go to war in military battalions as much as we do so on internet. Online communities from 4chan to Reddit to Twitter have led to dehumanizing hate campaigns directed at individuals. Doxxing (releasing people’s personal data, like their home address), hate-tweeting and straight-up harassment are just some of the techniques levied against whoever the group desires. Today we don’t have to literally dress Jesus up in a robe and a crown of thorns; there’s Photoshop for that.
Even if you don’t feel like a solider, there’s always…
But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will. (Luke 23:18-25 ESV)
And their voices prevailed. This populist outcry is somehow enough to persuade even the Roman governor to bend to their will. How barbaric! We would never see that today, would we?
Not to be outdone, liberal crowds have found their own three-beat chants:
(I can make out “Do Your Job”, “Your Last Term”, and “You Work ForUs.” — because apparently crowds can only shout on beats 1, 2 and 3.)
But of course, we’re supposed to speak truth to power, right? It’s not like mobs today are assembling to attack, I don’t know, a small business owner?
Okay, there will always be some jerks out there in society. We educated people in academia would ever crucify someone, would we?
That’s not exactly “Force Him Out”, but I was certainly happy to join the crowd. Weeks later, however, the true story would emerge:
This pattern is disheartening, and I’m embarrassed to have joined that bandwagon. If anyone should know better than to jump to conclusions, it’d be academics, right?
Wrong. It’s our collective human nature to cry out together, “Crucify him!”
Why the Cross?
The Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, but they perfected it. The point wasn’t to kill your enemies efficiently, but to humiliate them in the process to set a public example: “This is what happens to those who oppose Rome.” That chilling effect you feel when someone else is crucified in this court of public opinion is exactly what they’re going for.
And yet, Jesus would turn even this idea of being made an example completely upside down. Instead of serving as a deterrent, Jesus’s willingness to lay down his life led early Christians to follow in his example as willing martyrs, beginning with the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60 ESV)
I have often wondered when reading passages like this whether this was really the best use of early church leaders. If Stephen’s speech had been a little more conciliatory, he might have lived to go on preaching for decades. What was he thinking?
Good Friday is the key: Jesus’s willingness to die on a cross had made early Christians bold in the face of death. And that boldness would carry implications beyond their own deaths in propelling the early church. As early Christian theologian Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This is counterintuitive but plausible: In a world governed through shows of force, a movement that not only was completely unaffected by that sort of coercion but had even co-opted the symbolism of the worst form of it as a badge of honor would have staying power.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12 ESV)
Christians, we come from a long tradition of not caring what people will do to us. Even though the harsh world we live in might harass us, threaten us, doxx us, blacklist us, or call for us to fired, the death of our reputation has no power over us. This Good Friday, I hope you’ll reflect on the darkness in the world and in our communities, and look to the cross for the boldness we need.