Every Good Friday, Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, holds a worship service dedicated to the seven last words of Christ. Taking readings from each Gospel, worshippers meditate on Jesus’ forgiveness of his murderers, his pardon of criminals, his final instructions to his disciples, his doubt, his thirst, his acceptance, and finally, his submission to God as he dies.
It is his last utterance — “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit” — that shapes much of our theology of sacrifice, and our Christian call to obedience as faithful submission to God. But as a young Texas seminary student newly grappling with my history of childhood sexual violence, those were not the Good Friday words from Christ that my shattered heart ached to hear.
It was these: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I found hope and a sense of salvation in Jesus’ doubt, his pushback, his angry protest against the violence done to him, and his willingness to ask God why.
Submissive obedience is deeply embedded in Christian theology. The origin of sin is attributed to Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden. Jesus, by contrast, is described as “obedient unto death” — an example we are taught to emulate. God is depicted as all-powerful, all-knowing, a king and lord and father with relentless control over all things. And we — broken, limited, and prone to mistakes — are meant to trust God in all things, and give ourselves over completely to God’s divine power.
This call to submissive obedience is exemplified, more clearly than anywhere else, in Jesus’ willing submission to torture and death on the cross.
In more traditional conservative Christian theology, this power dynamic between a male God and humanity overlays human dynamics between men and women. At its worst, this interpretation can lead to church teachings that women should obey their husbands and other men even if it means sacrificing themselves, enduring pain and violent abuse. More progressive Christian circles avoid this essentialist gender hierarchy, and try to intersperse creative language for God between their traditional masculine depictions. But God’s masculinity is tied up in our perception of the divine as a supreme and uncompromising ruler, which most progressive theology maintains. And where conservative Christianity may glorify submission in relationships, even progressive Christianity glorifies noble sacrifice on the part of those with less power, especially in efforts toward justice. When trusting God in the face of suffering is lifted up as the ultimate embodiment of faith, we risk making the suffering itself seem holy.
This is a problem. The language we use for God, our power structures, and our teaching about what good sacrifice and obedience look like are all tangled up together. And if we do not confront and examine and deconstruct the dangerous ways that these things have been used — and are still being used — we turn our faith itself into violence. When I was a child enduring sexual abuse, I don't believe I thought that God wanted me to suffer. But I do know that my faith taught me to believe that I was inherently broken, unworthy and undeserving of goodness. I know that it taught me that I shouldn’t engage violently, even if violence is happening to me. It taught me that sometimes following God requires suffering, and there is holiness in that. And it taught me that I am not meant to be powerful — that power looks like a big man, and so does God.
All these years later, though I no longer accept the abuse I experienced, I still struggle with the call to trust and submit to God. It is not that I believe that spiritual surrender is wrong — actually, my faith rests in the hope that the one to whom we surrender, in whose arms we rest, is nothing like the man who violated me. Not a man at all. Not violent at all. Part of me wants to be able to surrender to that good and loving God, but I can’t quite do it. Long ago, someone stole that from me, and I won’t believe that I am less Christian or less faithful because of it.
Good Friday is an invitation for us, every year, to ask: What is actually good about Jesus’ death on the cross? What about it is salvific, and what is it saving us from?
In Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us , theologian and sexual abuse survivor Rebecca Ann Parker observes,
“I recognized that Christianity had taught me that sacrifice is the way of life. I forgot the neighbor who raped me, but I could see that when theology presents Jesus' death as God's sacrifice of his beloved child for the sake of the world, it teaches that the highest love is sacrifice. To make sacrifice or to be sacrificed is virtuous and redemptive.”
She later goes on to say, “Theology that defines virtue as obedience to God suppresses the virtue of revolt. A woman being battered by her husband will be counseled to be obedient, as Jesus was to God… A God who punishes disobedience will teach us to obey and endure when it would be holy to protest and righteous to refuse to cooperate.”
The promise of Holy Week, of the cross and the partner from which it cannot be separated — the empty tomb — is not that suffering is good. Christ’s or ours. It is not a call for us to submit to violence, abuse, or a tainted understanding of faith that perpetuates those experiences for others. Jesus’ work on the cross is to protest and question and demand the overthrow of violence and death-dealing systems of power. His imminent and eternal rising is a crying out against and over the abuses of this world — ensuring that they do not have the last word.
The good news of Good Friday is that Jesus Christ as God incarnate is with us in our suffering — undeserved and unholy, when it’s as blatant as a cross on a hilltop and when it’s as hidden as a dark childhood room. On Good Friday and always, Christ is with us in our suffering, but never accepts it.
Whatever faithful obedience is, I know that it is not silent acquiescence to violent power. Dying on the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we're not also willing to question and confront what is violent around us and even embedded in our own faith teachings, it is not God who forsakes us, but we who forsake each other.