Friday, April 06, 2007

How To Kill God

I preached this homily on Good Friday two years ago. The Gospel is John 18:1-19:42.

One fact in this homily is outdated. I'm delighted to report that, according to the 2007 Suicide in Nevada Fact Sheet, Nevada no longer has the nation's highest suicide rate. In 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the CDC, Alaska was first. Nevada was second.

Go, us.


The Gospel we just heard, the Passion narrative, tells the all-too-familiar story of Jesus’ trial and execution. Christians spend much of Lent meditating on Jesus’ Way of the Cross, the sufferings leading to his death. Here at St. Stephen’s, we begin our Lenten Wednesday-night potlucks with the ancient tradition of walking the Stations of the Cross, offering prayers in front of each of the fourteen icons depicting Jesus’ journey to Golgotha. You can see those icons on the walls around the sanctuary. They were a familiar fixture in Episcopal and Catholic churches long before Mel Gibson translated the Stations of the Cross into glorious technicolor.

When we walk the Way of the Cross, we imagine ourselves in Jesus’ place. We imagine ourselves being condemned, carrying our crosses, falling under our burdens. But on Good Friday, we are called to do something else. On Good Friday, we are called to reflect on our roles, not as the tormented Christ, but as his killers: the people who wash their hands of responsibility, who deny their Lord, who cry out, “Crucify him!” Those who play that part make a journey, too. It is far easier than Jesus’ journey; it requires far less effort. This journey asks of us primarily that we do nothing in the face of injustice, that we look away from whomever we define as “the least of these.” For each Station of the Cross, there is a corresponding Station of Complacency. On this day when Christ died, all of us are called to acknowledge -- and own -- these stops on the journey, this instruction manual for how to kill God.

First Station: Jesus is Condemned. It’s not hard to condemn Christ. All we have to do is demonize anyone we don’t understand: conservative or liberal, rich or poor, bureaucrat or activist, hawk or dove, straight or gay. We assume the worst about this person’s motives. We stop seeing this person as an individual, as a unique child of God, and see instead one of them, those people, the ones who are determined to destroy us and everything we stand for.

Second Station: Jesus Carries His Cross. We force the condemned person to carry a burden we would never accept ourselves: the blame for our own fear and anger, or responsibility for her or his own suffering. For instance, we may insist that poor people stay poor because they just don’t want to work, even if low-wage jobs in our area will not cover local housing costs.

Third Station: Jesus Falls For the First Time. We wait for the person on whom we have laid this burden to crack under the pressure, and then use this event as further evidence of unworthiness. For instance, if a poor youngster in an inner-city ghetto -- or, alternatively, a rich youngster at a fancy boarding school -- begins selling drugs, we tell ourselves that all poor people are criminals, or that all rich people are corrupt, or, at least, that this particular individual is fatally flawed. We deny the possibility of change or redemption.

Fourth Station: Jesus Meets His Mother. We forget that when anyone suffers, that person’s family suffers too, and that even the worst among us have mothers who love us. We support some mothers and ignore others. For instance, in debates about capital punishment, we emphasize how much the mothers of murder victims suffer, but overlook the pain of mothers whose children are executed by the state -- or vice versa. In wartime, we grieve with the mothers of our own fallen soldiers, but not with the mothers of the enemy -- or vice versa.

Fifth Station: Simon Helps Jesus Carry His Cross. We delegate compassion and good works to other people: clergy, charities, the Peace Corps. We admire them from a distance while feeling mingled pity and contempt for their doomed idealism. We canonize them, give them awards, and write them checks, but do not on any account get our own hands dirty.

Sixth Station: Jesus Meets Veronica. This station grew out of a medieval French legend that an anonymous woman stepped forward and wiped Jesus’ bloody face with a cloth. Veronica completes the trinity of those who care for the outcast and rejected: mothers, idealistic do-gooders, and anonymous servants. Therefore, if mothers and Peace Corps volunteers are not available, we assure ourselves that other people will offer comfort, even if those others are mired in their own poverty, overwork, and stigma. Nursing home aides function well here. So do corrections officers, drug counselors, and social workers.

Seventh Station: Jesus Falls For the Second Time. We condemn as weak, lazy and ungrateful those who stumble even after they have received help. We tell ourselves that if those people can’t improve themselves with the help of their mothers, their social workers, and the Peace Corps, they’re clearly a lost cause. We deny the possibility of change or redemption.

Eighth Station: Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem. According to theologian Henri Nouwen, the weeping women Jesus met were professional mourners, paid to grieve loudly for him while ignoring the grim plight of Jerusalem and of their own children. Continuing this tradition today, we support the sentimental exploitation of personal and social tragedy by the news media. At the same time, we dismiss efforts to address the root causes of such tragedy, especially when those efforts threaten our own privilege. For instance, we cry at human-interest stories about literacy volunteers, but vote against school bonds that would raise our own taxes.

Ninth Station: Jesus Falls For the Third Time. We support “three strikes and you’re out” laws. We deny the possibility of change or redemption.

Tenth Station: Jesus is Stripped. We take away any last recourse of those who are already defeated. For instance, we limit the ability of people who are financially overwhelmed by medical expenses to declare bankruptcy. If the sufferers are wealthy and famous, we use the news media to hound and harass them, robbing them of privacy and dignity.

Eleventh Station: Jesus is Nailed to the Cross. This one sounds inescapably barbaric, but we don’t hammer the nails ourselves. We vote for people who will do it for us. We acquiesce to unjust and life-denying corporate, governmental and religious policies: reduction of health benefits, wars of opportunity, denial of civil rights. We rationalize. We tell ourselves that we’re just following orders, or that we’re just doing our jobs, or that saving people’s lives is somebody else’s job: their mothers’, or their social workers’, or the Peace Corps’ -- or God’s.

Twelfth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross. We refuse to mourn for “those people.” We insist that trouble-makers get what they deserve. We rejoice at the deaths of enemy combatants and criminals executed by the state. We tell ourselves that if they die, fewer of us will have to die. We tell ourselves that if these deaths were not God’s will, God would have prevented them.

Thirteenth Station: Jesus is Taken From the Cross. We allow unjust and preventable deaths to remain invisible. We do not question or protest the casualty count, on either side, in wartime. We do not question why the violent deaths of affluent people are front-page news, while the violent deaths of the indigent go unmentioned. Those of us living in the state with the highest suicide rate in the country -- that would be Nevada -- do everything we can to forget this fact, instead of asking why such deaths happen and how they can be prevented.

Fourteenth Station: Jesus is Laid in the Grave. We favor “final solutions” that cannot be escaped or undone without a miracle, and that deny the possibility of change or redemption: for instance, capital punishment or permanent deportation. We tell ourselves that once “those people” are done away with, they’ll be gone for good, because God doesn’t grant miracles to the likes of them. Then we go home and get a good night’s sleep. The body has been laid in the tomb. The tomb has been sealed with a stone. It is finished. What else could possibly happen?

Are there any of us who have not walked the Way of Complacency? Naming these stations, I see myself in too many of them. Where I see myself, I am called to practice both repentance and compassion. Where I do not see myself, I must try to avoid the danger of demonizing other people, the sin of self-righteousness. The Stations of Complacency take many more forms than I have outlined here. No doubt I am most blind to the ones where I have lingered the longest. No doubt all of you can provide many other examples and definitions.

The lesson of Good Friday is that we are all guilty; we have all done something to help kill God. But the lesson is also that we are all forgiven. In one of his last utterances on earth, Jesus begged, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

And so Good Friday leaves us with a question. Once we do know what we do, once we have learned to recognize the Way of Complacency -- what will we do about it?


  1. Wow...

    That is an incredible homily, Susan...

    It depresses me to read the literal interpretation of every step of the way. I, too, see far too much of myself in your descriptions.

    Simply incredible. Thanks for putting it out there...


  2. As a Jew I have never really related to the stations of the cross before. This post makes that journey, and its implications, hit home for me in a new way. Thank you for opening this window for me.

  3. Thank you very much, John!

  4. And thank you too, Rachel! (I posted my response to John's comment before I'd seen yours.) This homily came largely out of my experience trying to help our clergy find contemporary Stations of the Cross to use during Lent. A lot of what's out there is pretty awful, although there are a few good ones around social-justice themes. But I needed something that was relevant to my own experience, and it was hard to find.

  5. Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. - Good Friday

  6. Thank you for such an eloquent application of the scourge. Perhaps if we all had a more vivid understanding of his death we might find it less easy to reduce his resurrection a a mere conjuring trick with bones...


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