For centuries, Christians have gathered together on the Friday before Easter to remember Christ’s crucifixion and death. This Friday service often revolves around why Christians understand this day as a good Friday considering the horror and atrocity that Jesus experienced on the cross. The answer, so the sermon goes, is in our belief of what took place on Easter Sunday: the resurrection.
For all Christians, the story told from Friday to Sunday is certainly a good message.
Many of the white evangelical churches I have visited and grew up in framed Good Friday as a celebration. I have attended services that centered around dramatic skits or clips of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in order to evoke an emotional response. Another service treated Good Friday like a visitation where congregants were encouraged to reflect on their “friend Jesus” and share words of gratitude. Another covered the cross of Christ in flowers to symbolize the beauty of Jesus’ death. In short, these churches did not present a theology of suffering that could reconcile Christ's death with the Christian life. Said another way: They did not know what to do with the gross injustice and violence of Good Friday and therefore, like many churches in the United States, attempted to offer a positive take on a bad situation.
Yet, at a time where so many vulnerable people are already suffering, it is of the utmost importance that Christians consider how faith speaks to the violence, oppression, war, and death which plague our world. Amid the horrors in our world today, I believe there is a spiritual, moral, and ethical mandate to leave behind these celebrations and develop a robust theology of the cross.
Rather than a celebration of suffering, I understand Good Friday to be a much-needed ecclesial reorientation to Jesus’ call to pick up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). To be sure, this is not a call into abusive relationships, oppression, or physical death. Rather, Jesus’ command in Luke 9 resets our spirit so that we might focus our eyes on “Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, ASV). Because of this, we can follow Jesus in “picking up our cross” as each of us has been called in our own way (Matthew 16:24-26).
As a church, this reorientation is collective and glorifying to God.
An understanding of Good Friday as a reorientation to a suffering savior is a theme picked up by many theologians writing from perspectives and identities that the dominant culture has marginalized.
In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Black theologian James H. Cone argues that “the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.” For Cone, the cross, and even our the call to “carry our cross” was not a path to the lynching tree, but a path to stand against injustice. As Cone writes in God of the Oppressed, “the scandal is that the gospel means liberation, that this liberation comes to the poor, and that it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude.”
For Asian American theologian and postcolonial expert Wonhee Anne Joh, the cross is a place of love where God and humanity come together in an unlikely way. In her book Heart of the Cross, Joh does this by way of the Korean concept of jeong, which “embodies the invisible traces of compassion in relationships and is most often recognized when we perceive our very own self, conscious and unconscious, in the mirrored reflection of the other.” In the cross, Joh finds a “complex constellation of relationality of the self with the other that is deeply associated with compassion, love, vulnerability, and acceptance of heterogeneity as essential to life.” In this complexity, Joh identifies a Derridan double gesture of the cross as paradoxically “a tool for imperial execution and repression” and also a “powerful, subversive, and revolutionary” symbol of liberation.
Neither Cone nor Joh celebrates Christ’s death in a way that glorifies suffering. Instead, they see the cross as a reorientation toward liberation and love. In this way, Joh and Cone reclaim agency by finding meaning in oppression and hardship and use such toward the liberation of their communities. Interacting with sociologist Jung Ha Kim, Joh agrees that the cross is “double-edged.” The oppressor and colonizer will not have the last word.
To reorient ourselves to the cross is to come to a realization about its double meaning: The cross is more than a tool of the empire. Even more, God — the divine upholder of the common good — is one who is intimately aware of the slave, the poor, the downtrodden, and the disenfranchised because God has come incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. For the one who exploits, profits dishonestly, manipulates, fosters division, and prioritizes themselves over the whole, the cross reminds us that there is judgment.
Where does this leave us on Good Friday? It leaves us with the concrete person of Jesus Christ, who, as University of Wales lecturer T. Robert Baylor puts it, “had no need to merit [anything] for himself since his exaltation is not the acquisition of some new grace, but the revelation of that glory and blessedness that Christ possessed in himself from the very moment of the incarnation.” In other words, on Good Friday we are left with a God whose eternal purpose is redemption.
What remains for us on Good Friday is an opportunity, an invitation, to participate in what Christ accomplished in human flesh, imitating Christ's obedience and attention to God’s divine work of redemption in the world today. As we follow in the way of Jesus by the Spirit, we are united with Christ and share in the Life (John 11:25) which Jesus obtained in the passion and, on Sunday, through the resurrection.