As we confront radical evil, we should look to the lesson of Good Friday
“He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
Christians say these words week by week in the Creed, referring to the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. On Good Friday, we particularly commemorate the event and its meaning. To a secular culture it can, of course, all seem rather obscure. An execution of an itinerant Jewish teacher, ordered by an official of a long disappeared empire. A quarrel in a far away time, between people of whom we know little.
How can a gruesome death, two millennia ago, possibly be at the heart of a reasonable, meaningful vision of life, goodness and truth for a secular age — or, in this year, address the evil and injustice being inflicted on Ukraine?
The Crucified Christ has defined life and meaning for millions
To begin with, we might recall that for very many Ukrainians — Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant — Good Friday does indeed sustain them in the face of evil. That, perhaps, should give a much more secular Western Europe pause for thought.
Good Friday proclaims that at the centre of human history is this event: the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Pontius Pilate would have been shocked and offended that he, the proud bearer of the might and power of imperial Rome, is now remembered solely for this reason: because he condemned a Jew to a slave’s death.
It is the Crucified Christ, not Pilate or his emperor, who has over centuries defined life and meaning for millions across the globe. The Cross stands as a sign contradicting all those tyrants, ideologues and thugs across history who believed — and as we now see, continue to believe — that brute force, the claims of naked power, and ideologies justifying injustice define what is right and lasting.
In Luke’s Gospel, the Mother of Jesus, as she recognises before his birth God’s purposes for her child, exclaims: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek”. These words find a focus on Good Friday, when we behold the Crucified overturning the empty claims of worldly powers to define life and meaning. As the Apostle Paul put it, a few decades after that first Good Friday: “he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it”.
In contemplating the wounds and suffering of the Crucified Christ, we see how God “hath exalted the humble and meek”, for our hearts and souls are turned to those wounded and stricken, oppressed and afflicted in our day. It is they, not the tyrants and ideologues, who in the light of the Cross, command our attention; who define what it is to be a just community; who shape the moral life for us.
The Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion of Jesus also point to how religious power can collude with injustice and evil. They unfold the plotting of the Temple authorities in Jerusalem, the ideological hostility of religious parties to Jesus, the heady mixture of religious enthusiasm and nationalistic zeal in the crowd gathered for a great festival, and the cowardice and abject failure of the Twelve, the circle around Jesus who would become central to the Church’s life after the Resurrection. The Gospel accounts of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus hold before us defining examples of religious zeal justifying unjust violence and moral cowardice preventing religious institutions from challenging injustice.
In our twenty-first century context, to the surprise of many secularist theorists, religion continues to be a significant cultural and geo-political presence. These Gospel accounts are, therefore, an important spiritual and cultural means of identifying how and why religious institutions and traditions can fail to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly. They are also a means of guiding religious institutions and traditions to be a just and good presence in our common life.
A secular order is not meant to be an end in itself
What of the Christian belief, rooted in the Gospel accounts, that the death of Jesus on the Cross is somehow sacrificial? Does this not evoke primitive notions that must be dismissed out-of-hand?
Roger Scruton noted that “the desire for sacrifice is deeply rooted in all of us”, going on to say that “the sacred and the sacrificial coincide”. Dark myths appealing to the notion of sacrifice — when the sacrificial victims are “them”, others — can too easily find willing hearers. When the blood of others needs to be shed for racial purity, for securing the destiny of the motherland, for victory in the class struggle, in pursuit of “holy war”. Here love of neighbour and of God is perverted, justifying fascistic blood-letting as a means of gaining a hellish utopia.
The sacrifice that is Good Friday proclaims otherwise. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Christ lays down his life, not that of others: this is the sacrifice which defines love and which underpins what it is to love our neighbour. The sacrifice of Good Friday reveals fascistic blood sacrifices — whether demanded in Mosul or Bucha — as blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.
A secular order is not meant to be an end in itself. It is, instead, a process, a procedure. As former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks stated, the liberal democratic state “makes space for difference”, allowing diverse religious and philosophical traditions “to live peaceably and graciously together”. Its purpose, then, is not to denude society and culture of the wisdom and moral vision of religious traditions.
When, however, secularism wrongly becomes an end in itself, excluding that wisdom and vision from public culture, a secular order finds itself left only with cold abstractions and uncomprehending outrage when confronted with dark myths and the evils they promote.
Something more enduring, with greater depth is required in order to inspire and sustain an alternative moral vision, not least as Russia wages an unjust war on Ukraine this Good Friday, committing atrocities with the blessing of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Other great religious traditions bring their wisdom through, for example, Passover or Ramadan, enriching the moral sense of secular societies.
For the Christian tradition, so fundamental to Europe’s heritage and self-understanding, it is Good Friday: “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Here is a narrative rich in meaning; exposing the tyrants, turning us to the stricken and oppressed, and challenging religious institutions and traditions which collude with injustice.
With a gracious, thoughtful confidence then, the Church should proclaim the message of Good Friday — and a secular society should listen to a deep wisdom, challenging the dark myths around us.
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