Quick thought around Easter…which is, when one thinks about it, a pretty bizarre religious festival, unfolding a complex, gruesome, politically charged and then miraculous narrative.
For some time my friend Pete Rollins has focused quite a lot of his theological thinking around Jesus’ cry from the cross about being forsaken. “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” is, as Pete has identified, perhaps the most fascinating kernel of Christianity, because, as he sees it, it puts doubt right at the centre of the Christian religion…which is not a fulcrum you hear a lot about, especially from Republican presidential candidates, or fundamentalist lobbyists.
I like this idea of doubt, but I think there’s something far more troubling about these words of Jesus, which comes simply from changing the tone of voice. Rather than a painful cry of abandonment, what if his words are an actual, unrhetorical question: seriously, God, why have you forsaken me?
This is an incredibly important question, because it drives at the heart of what Christianity is about. Is it about a supposedly loving father who, at the very point of his son’s greatest anguish, abandons him and will have nothing to do with him because he’s ‘impure’? That seems to me to be an utterly despicable thing to do… the behaviour of a petulant, obsessive compulsive, someone so afraid of contamination that they need bizarre purification rituals to be performed, with blood and incense, before they’ll be present.
This is the Old Testament God that we read about: angry, yet weirdly lacking robustness, unable to be near things that are imperfect. And this is important, because this is the sort of ‘holiness’ that so many Christians base themselves on: putting themselves as far as possible away from ‘impurity’ and being really quite angry and neurotic about it.
So, in light of this, Jesus’ question about being abandoned is a direct challenge to this mode of being. Why, Jesus asks…why can’t you handle dirt? God comes across like an angry Tudor monarch, obsessed with cleanliness in a world that has never been clean.
The key question for me is whether God faced that challenge. If he did not, and this cry of abandonment is just that: despair at being left alone in his hour of need, then I couldn’t call myself a Christian. It just doesn’t fit together.
But… if, in an inverted reading of this cry, we imagine that God sees his own son become filth and decides that enough is enough… that he has to get involved, overcome his OCD and get his hands dirty…. and stop hating and punishing people for all their pettiness… then that feels a bit more like it, because now we get a theology which takes engagement in ‘filth’ as a positive thing… and thus ought to lead those who profess to be Christians away from sanctimonious declarations of who’s clean and who’s dirty, and into full engagement with a world that still has too many people who experience abandonment in it.
I’m currently reading the manuscript for Pete’s new book, which talks about this… It’s very good, and has been making me think…perhaps the single greatest sin is religion itself, because it’s that that has led to so much condemnation of difference… So what we see on the cross is the death of religion, because we see the death of this angry and neurotic god who is challenged to change…and perhaps does.