We are here, on this Good Friday afternoon, to remember how Jesus died on the cross. We are silent as we do so. He was silent as he died. But around him then, and perhaps around us in our cities and towns now, there is anything but silence. There is noise. In the gospel account of Jesus death, there was the noise of those who mocked him and his silence. They were the powerful people, with their loud mocking voices. He was the powerless person, with no voice at all. I would like to pause and ponder the paradox of power and powerlessness on this Good Friday.
The mockery of Jesus by powerful people reminds me of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, much earlier in the gospel story. There is a tempter there. It is the devil. He teases Jesus. He mocks him. Loudly.
If you are the Son of God, be powerful. Come down from the cross. Ask God to rescue you. God will, if God wants to. Ask him. Your prayer is powerful.’
‘If you are the Son of God, be powerful. Destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. You said you could. Show them. Now. Powerfully. Get off your cross and do it.’
‘If you are the Son of God, be powerful. Go in for power, and you can be powerful everywhere, globally. Everywhere, all the time.’
In fact, the last taunt is even more powerful. The devil tells Jesus:
‘I will give you all this power and the glory of every kingdom in the whole world. It has been committed to me. It is mine. I give it to anyone I want to. Worship me, worship Power, and it’s all yours.’ (Lk 4)
To be seduced by power is a diabolical thing. To be powerful over people is more than diabolical. It is devilish. To be utterly powerless is a divine thing. To be utterly powerless and dead on a cross is more than just divine. It is the way the Son of God is. Jesus, dead on the cross, speaks to us and tells us that the way of power is not the way of the cross.
I would like to reflect on this, with the help of a recent book by Miroslav Volk, Exclusion and Embrace. Volk spells out a story of power that is like a recurring decimal in many human lives. A group of people finds its identity, its culture, and its way of life. It then feels under siege, and is threatened by those who do not belong to it. There are then two camps: ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. ‘Them’ becomes the enemy of ‘Us’, and vice-versa. ‘We’ then describe ‘us’ in the most positive and the most powerful terms, and describe ‘them’ in the most negative terms and we use what power we have to keep them down. ‘We’ try to exclude ‘them’ (as we fear ‘they’ want to do it to ‘us’).
How do you use power to exclude people? You can use violence and destroy them. You can assimilate them, and swallow them up and force them to be like you. You can insulate yourself from them and keep them out of your way. All these ways go together. We take it they are all legitimate, because we are frightened we might be wiped out, and that mustn’t happen. We don’t want to die! We think we have a right to be alive, fully alive, even at the expense of exploiting and removing others in any and every way we think useful. It lets us injure, appropriate, and overpower the ‘foreigner’. This egocentrism is the hallmark of our human race. [It was Nietzsche who offered this analysis, and a reflection on the 20th century, and now the 21st century shows that in this he was not wrong.]
Look at Jesus dead on the cross. Was he like that?
I would like to reflect on this power and powerlessness, again, with the help of another recent book, by
Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots. Booker proposes seven basic plots for almost all the stories we have. He calls them – Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; and Rebirth. In all of these stories he notes that there is a fairly limited cast of stock characters. Among these characters, centre stage is occupied by one whom he calls The Monster. In all of these stories, he sees a preset expectation of how people will act. He says that The Monster will act in an egocentric, heartless manner, without any feeling for others, and with ‘tunnel vision’. The Monster has power.
Jesus on the cross was no Monster. But he did tell us not just to beware of our Monsters, but to love them. Love your enemies. It seems downright irrational. It is almost a death wish. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘don’t hate them’, he doesn’t say, ‘keep a benign distance from them’, he doesn’t say, ‘be detached from them’, he says, ‘love them’. He doesn’t say, ‘don’t hold a grudge against them’, he doesn’t say, ‘don’t launch a counter-attack’. He doesn’t say, ‘keep your love and prayers for your own kind’. He actually says that even the most morally corrupt do that for one another. He asks us to move out from all those boxes, and tells us that when we do, we become like God, who rains indiscriminately on everyone, even on people who don’t like God or deny God’s existence.
Power people have plans to deal with Monsters. Plan A would be to say we can’t help excluding enemies, and we hope God will forgive us in the end. Plan B would be to say that bit by bit, in small ways, we will try to manage the Monsters, knowing that major change is not likely. We will get them to work on our side.
Look at Jesus dead on the cross. Was he like that?
He is telling us there is something beyond all positives and negatives, there is Fullness there in that Emptiness, there a powerlessness that does not know how to exclude anyone, that is capable of a universal embrace…and his arms are stretched out on this cross to hold us there.
I would like to reflect on this a third time, with the help of Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan and Alyosha are brothers. Ivan is a committed atheist. Alyosha is a novice monk. The tale is told by Ivan with brief interruptions by Alyosha. In the tale, Jesus comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. He is arrested by Inquisition leaders. He is still the powerless one. The Grand Inquisitor visits him. He tells Jesus that he is right about powerlessness! The church today is doing all the things power can do for the people – offer miracles (turn stones into bread), reveal mysteries (having angels save them), give sure guidance (centralized earthly rule). He reminds Jesus that Jesus was never into any of that. Rather, Jesus offered people freedom, through his and their powerlessness. The Inquisitor says that this was beautiful, but it was useless, it was wrong. It is useless because most people can’t handle that sort of freedom. They don’t want that sort of powerlessness. They want as much power as they can get. The Inquisitor sentences Jesus to death the next day. His continued existence would interfere with what people can handle and what the Church is doing so powerfully.
Look at Jesus still crucified for still being powerless….
Jesus was born poor. He worked as a day laborer. He had few if any possessions. He advocated tirelessly for the poor, at a time when poverty was seen as a curse. He told parables in which the poor were above the rich. He died an utterly poor man with only one seamless garment to his name. He said the poor had an inherent capacity to understand life, and God, better than anyone else…better than we rich people do. He said they had a claim to special consideration because they were privileged carriers of God’s grace to others. He told his followers to free their fellow poor from social structures that made them poor. He made a preferential option for the poor. That’s why they crucified him.
Look at Jesus on the cross: he made a preferential option for the powerless.
In 1980 Oscar Romero was martyred because he did. In 1989 several Jesuits and lay associates were assassinated by Salvadoran death squads because they did. In the same year four Catholic churchwomen were martyred in El Salvador because they did.
On this Good Friday we look at Jesus, powerless and free, on his cross. For the rest of the year we look at his followers, powerless and free, on their crosses… Perhaps, perhaps, we might find ourselves among them, we might join them…
But before we do, let’s hear a warning, from Dan Berrigan, S.J.. ‘Before you get serious about Jesus, first consider carefully how good you are going to look on wood.
Our Good Friday audio presentation is