Witnesses to the Persecution

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, March 29, 2024

Can we . . . ‘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?

—Bruce Epperly

There was a time when I avoided Good Friday services. Not because I don’t think Jesus’ crucifixion plays a critical role in a fuller, more meaningful experience and understanding of Holy Week, especially as the foundational event in Jesus’ life and Christianity that makes his resurrection God’s earth-shattering, world-transforming act of vindication. Good Friday goes a long way in tempering the rush to Easter. But I sense an uneasiness with Good Friday services because I think progressive churches have become far too self-conscious about the uncomfortable biblical, theological, and liturgical baggage they carry. From odious substitutionary atonement theological constructs underpinning familiar hymns and prayers to the Gospel texts carelessly read and recited to stoke antisemitism, we may be tempted to skip the observance.

And yet, we must confront and address the reality of the crucifixion. Persecution thrives where there is silence, indifference, or accommodation to the forces of oppression, domination, and exploitation. And we can easily slip into justification of persecution when we accept it as a means of redemption. That was my problem with the movie The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s popular film about the crucifixion of Jesus, including the 12 hours before his death. The violence of Jesus’s crucifixion that it portrays is so graphic and prolonged that it appears to be the sole point of the movie, forcing us to look at it more as a spectacle served up to satisfy God’s demand for a sacrifice than violent persecution visited upon those who embody love and justice without compromise. In harmonizing very different accounts of the crucifixion of the Gospels, many churches (and Mel Gibson) rob us of a range of perspectives about Jesus’ death and responses to it that speak to our hunger for good news.

In the apparent silencing of Jesus, in the belief that they had thwarted the in-breaking of the reign of God, the forces of empire felt vindicated that they had secured business as usual against an insurgency of love, liberation, and neighborliness. It is fitting that we take the opportunity to grieve and suffer in recalling and remembering the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death. In doing so, we take on the responsibility of bearing witness to the persecution of so many in our own time and testifying in response to Jesus’ final words that life is sacred. Unlike Jesus’ followers at the time, we stand in solidarity with Jesus and the persecuted in every age during their trials. It may cause us to tremble and remember the costliness of persecution, but we also recognize our responsibility to join God in healing, saving, and renewing in response to it. Amen.