Good Friday

“Um…so what’s that interesting necklace you’re wearing?”

I am at the Kerrville Folk Festival, on a sweaty May afternoon. I’m with a group of fellow musicians, and one has again asked me a question I’ve been asked many times before. She’s asking about the necklace I wear every day.

“It’s a ‘Lethal Injection Crucifix,’” I reply.

Awkward silence follows.

It usually does.

This silence has happened before, when I answer this same question, and almost always nobody is really able to think of what to say next.

So, I typically break the tension:

“I wear it to remind everyone that Jesus’ death was, first and foremost, a form of State Execution,” I say.

“Everyone alive in the time of Jesus would have understood the cross *first* as an instrument of state execution, not as a religious symbol. The closest metaphor in our day would be the lethal injection table, because that’s how the American Empire kills people. And so that’s why I wear this. To break open the metaphor of the ‘cross’ in our time.”

Musicians are used to thinking metaphorically in deeply symbolic ways. So, on this day, as I give this answer, the tension is replaced by smiles and nods of recognition…and actually a pretty interesting afternoon-long conversation about religion and faith.

I regret to tell you, this doesn’t often happen with many church folks.

Sadly, when this very same question gets asked by Church folks —especially by those raised in evangelical traditions that sacralize the “blood of Jesus” and the cross— they typically react in horror to my answer. Or, just look at me blankly, and smile with face laced with terror.

My disdain for traditional “Atonement Theology” is well known…and if it isn’t to you, I’ll repost one of my most-read writings ever: “Confronting Atonement Theology” here.

When I originally wrote it a decade ago, it was to push Christians to think deeply about what it means to say “God sent Jesus to die.”

To summarize: If you really believe God sent Jesus to die with intention, and you affirm a Trinitarian view of God, it either makes God filicidal or suicidal.

I don’t think God is either, because I don’t think God intended to send Jesus to die. Period.

God sent Jesus, as it says in John 3: “not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”

Not through his DEATH, but through his LIFE….through his mission, preaching, teaching and healing.
(That’s why this story is at the beginning of the Gospel of John, to set the stage for understanding his life and ministry…)

What happened, of course, is that the POWERS THAT BE of Jesus’ day —Imperial and Religious— killed Jesus in an attempt to quash his message of love, compassion, justice and mercy for all God’s children. It was an incarnational message about how we are to live in this world.

God didn’t kill Jesus.
Imperial power did.
Religious leaders who collaborated with Imperial power did.

And, guess what? It still does.

In our time, American Christian preachers have become those religious leaders in the Gospels, far too often siding with the Powers that Be —governmental power, corporate power, police and military power– and against the poor and marginalized.

The crucifixion —a story initially understood by EVERYONE as a cautionary tale about the Power of Empire— has now been coopted and used by an “Imperial Church” for almost 2,000 years.

It’s morphed, in a truly twisted fashion, from a critique OF the Powers That Be, and into a rationale for why the poor should “bow” to power…to both kingly Jesus, and also Kings, Emperors, Presidents…why they should be willing to suffer and die for them. Jesus’ suffering has been used to justify the suffering of working class soldiers in every war from the Crusades to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s mind-blowing, once you see it.

So, that’s why I wear “Lethal Injection Jesus.”

Because too many American Christians still believe in some kind of mystic salvation through Jesus’ death….even though Jesus clearly intended to DESTROY the idea of temple sacrifice, not re-create it for another 2,000 years.

God’s “intention” for Jesus was that Jesus’ message of love, compassion, justice, and mercy be accepted by human beings. (Note: It’s an incarnational message that can still “save” us, individually and collectively, without having to believe the “blood” and “cross” do the “work.”)

But, in every age, POWER kills that message…crucifies it…

By lethal injection…
By allowing assault weapons in schools…
By knees on the necks of Black men…
By laws that discriminate against the LGBTQ community…
By men using coercive power over women in the name of God…

By whatever sanctioned power of Empire, blessed by religion, that you can think of, in every age.

To understand Good Friday, you’ve got to unpack the metaphor BEHIND the cross.

Those Kerrville songwriters clearly did on that day.

And…so did a hero to every one of us who is an American songwriter: Woody Guthrie.

Woody’s best song on the subject is called “Jesus Christ,” and the last verse says it all:

“This song was written in New York City
Of rich men, preachers and slaves
Yes, if Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galilee,
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.”

Yes, Woody, yes.
So glad you understood too.

It’s not that the cross doesn’t have an important message for our day.
It’s that the message is so uncomfortable to earthly power that we don’t want to talk about it

Because, as Jesus showed us, it can get you killed.

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