04/06/2007 06:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Politics of Good Friday

As the son of a pastor, I learned early on that each season of the Christian calendar brought with it a new set of questions. In that regard, Easter was no exception: for one, there was the whole resurrection thing; for another, that small matter of the ascension. Not easy to wrap your head around either, even at six.

Yet somehow it was always "Good Friday" that stumped me most. After all, the day commemorates how an innocent man was brutalized, nailed to a cross, and planted upright so he could suffocate from exhaustion. Even Karl Rove, for all his cunning and chutzpah, would have a hard time spinning that as "good." (Rebranding it as a holiday, though, sounds about on par.)

The pat explanation for the misnomer, of course, is that the crucifixion was "good" precisely because it was so tragic. The total depravity of the cross, that is, was beneficial insofar as it allowed Christ to demonstrate the superlative glory and power and mercy of God.

Yet such logic can be as dangerous as it is paradoxical. For starters, note that there's nothing about Good Friday that requires belief. Unlike most Christian holidays, there's no event in the story of Good Friday that defies experience. A false conviction, a cruel beating, a tortured death -- each lies well within the realm of human possibility. Indeed, Good Friday is, if anything, all too human: its narrative admits frankly of our capacity for violence and injustice, as well as of our tendency to couple them.

That admission, however, is precisely what makes Good Friday so problematic. Because its drama hinges entirely on the exercise of a secular authority, Good Friday has become the de facto starting point for Christians seeking to reconcile the gravity of their faith with the reality of their world.

Unfortunately, the two popular understandings of that drama offer grossly inadequate responses to the inevitable conflicts of political life. The first sees in Christ on the cross the supreme example of non-violent resistance, and so encourages its adherents to approach politics with the pacifist's eye of absolute suspicion and the saint's aspiration of perfect righteousness. Crucially, this reading ultimately fails in the political realm -- however admirable its idealism may be -- for in the end it cannot distinguish the despotic tyrant from the elected representative. By contrast, the second understanding errs to the opposite extreme. Here the crucifixion excuses not passivity or withdrawal, but decisive action or outright aggression. The famous dictum with which Luther unwittingly launched generations of bloodshed and war -- pecca fortiter, or "sin boldly" -- is perhaps most emblematic of this approach: if Christ could redeem humanity at its worst, then surely we needn't fuss too much over our own political sins; so long as we mean well and exhibit due contrition, there's no injustice for which Christ cannot atone.

Needless to say, the latter understanding is far more troubling. By insisting that the politics of Good Friday include the theology of Easter, it opens the door to all manner of sins, from the recurrent pogroms of the Holy Roman Empire to the colonial subjugation of entire populations.

For myself, however, what makes those iniquities especially tragic is that another interpretation is so readily available. When we hear of Christ's famous, agonizing cry in Matthew 27 or Mark 15 -- "Father, father, why have you forsaken me?" -- we need only pause for a moment to perceive the silence with which God responds. For the Christ on the cross, there is no miracle, no voice from heaven that parts the skies and relieves the pain. There is, instead, only a chilling silence, its quiet suspense punctured solely by the taunts of soldiers.

To ignore that silence is to miss the Bible's final, most instructive lesson on political authority. When we look at the Judeo-Christian scriptures as a whole, we see that the cross is actually the culmination of a long trend of political disengagement. From Solomon on, God increasingly dissociates His divine will from the exercise of any temporal authority. Although that withdrawal is often seen as a kind of rebuke -- as if God, fed up with humanity, were washing His hands of us -- it can also be read as a kind of tribute. After all, the moment at which God most fully and painfully declines to interfere in our political life is also the moment at which the Roman system of law -- the basis, it bears repeating, of most modern law -- finally takes firm hold throughout the Mediterranean world. Only against that law does the trial and crucifixion appear so conspicuously unjust; only by virtue of its legitimacy does Christ's suffering and death wield such moral power.

The politics of Good Friday, then, are a politics of trust. Theologically God's silence may mean that we are to have faith in a future Easter, but politically it means that God has faith in us here today. To read the gospels closely is to see that God now trusts our ability to perceive injustice and our capacity to mitigate it.

Alone among the many questions of Christianity, "how can the crucifixion can be good?" is thus the one question that God asks of us. For if Good Friday is ever to be "good," it's up to humanity to make it so -- by disavowing arbitrary violence, and living up to the moral responsibility we've been given.

--Chris Meserole is the editor of Democratic Vista and the founder of Thinker Media.