Good Friday – Good Grief!

April 14, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

I was raised Roman Catholic. Many things about the church puzzled me, Good Friday perhaps being the most puzzling of Holy Days.   On the lighter side, the kids at Catholic school insisted that it always rained on Good Friday, usually in the afternoon while Jesus was dying on the cross.  Whenever it did rain this was seen as proof of something important.  When it didn’t rain on Good Friday, that lack of rain was merely an exception to the rule.

Throughout my life, I’ve found that Catholics are very skeptical about religious beliefs . . . well, as long as it isn’t their own beliefs that they are questioning.   Growing up Catholic, I always heard about those “bizarre” beliefs of other types of religions.  “How could anyone ever believe such silly things?” Catholics would often ask.  For reasons I still don’t understand, I found myself asking these same skeptical questions about my own church (and everyone else’s church).  I started asking these questions even as a young child.    Good Friday has always been the focus for many of my questions, for at least three reasons:

I.  False Suspense. 

The Good Friday church services were always dreary.  Tears were shed, incense was burned, and sad songs were sung.  Those attending the services went away from them thinking that all bordering on hopelessness, as though this might be the year that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.  This was puzzling to me, given that Easter was already marked on everyone’s calendars.  The rising was a done deal.  They’d already bought their Easter clothes and they’d already rehearsed the Easter service. Even the people who normally didn’t go to church had marked Easter services on their calendars.  Why the remorse on Good Friday?  Why the surprise three days later?

II. Contradictory Meat Rule. 

Canon Law still prohibits Catholics from eating meat on Fridays. On the other hand, Catholics are encouraged to go to Communion on holy days like Good Friday.

Here’s the wrinkle: The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation holds that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus during Consecration.  Therefore, the host that Catholics commonly eat on Good Friday is meat.   It follows, then, that taking Communion on Good Friday violates Canon Law because it is the act of eating meat on Friday. 

III.  Non-Sequitur. 

What if you noticed that someone killed your pet dog and the culprit turned out to be the kid next door?  You ask him: “Why did you kill my dog?”   He answers:  I killed him so that I could I could wear a blue shirt.”  You respond: “What??  Wearing a blue shirt has nothing to do with killing my dog.  That’s a non sequitur! You could have worn a blue shirt without killing my dog!”  You would think that the kid was vicious and immoral.

Then consider this:  If you ask a Christian why Jesus had to die on the cross she will also answer with a non-sequitur:  Jesus died to save us from our sins.”  This time-worn answer is also a non-sequitur.  It seems logical to so many people simply because it has been repeated so often.  

But allowing His Son to be killed isn’t the only way for an omnipotent God to forgive us our sins.  God is allegedly . . . God!   He can do anything in any way He chooses.   [One exception: philosophers have long agreed that God’s inability to do self-contradictory acts (like making a rock so heavy that He can’t life it) is not really a limit on his power.]
Forgiving us our sins is something that an omnipotent God can do in a thousand ways.  He could forgive us our sins by wiggling His Nose, waving his Hand, or singing a little song like “I Absolve Your Sins, You May Live in Peace” (sung, roughly to the tune of Row Row Row Your Boat).   Since He’s omnipotent, he could even just decide “I forgive their sins.”   With that one mighty Thought, all of the sins of the world (and even the sins of all sentient life forms sprawled across the entire universe) would be instantly and permanently forgiven.  It would be that easy for an Omnipotent God and I have yet to meet a praying person who denies that God is Omnipotent.    

God’s omnipotence is troubling to me because it makes the death of Jesus gratuitous and violent, i.e., gratuitous violence.   Believers often tiptoe around God’s long history of gratuitous violence.  The Bible tells us that God has been part of scores of murderous rampages based upon the most minor of transgressions.  For example, note the following from Judges 21:8-10 (NIV):

Then they asked, “Which one of the tribes of Israel failed to assemble before the LORD at Mizpah?” They discovered that no one from Jabesh Gilead had come to the camp for the assembly. For when they counted the people, they found that none of the people of Jabesh Gilead were there. So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children.

For a much longer list of God’s destruction of human beings, see http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/int/long.html .  I realize that God later clarified his position regarding indiscriminate killing. 

That someone has a habit of engaging in gratuitous violence does not justify such behavior.  That’s what we’d say to any mass murderer, though Believers make this puzzling exception for God.  Killing one’s Son is a disturbing act.   Decent human beings don’t condone such behavior except when it is the only way to accomplish something extremely important.  God’s followers plainly admit that God is omnipotent; therefore He had other ways to get the job done.  The Martian anthropologist would say it thusly:  Because there are safer and easier ways to save the People, don’t slaughter your son to get the job done.

Further Thoughts.

In case it’s not obvious, I don’t believe that the Christian mysteries are literally true.  Nonetheless, I do believe that proclamations of faith can be important for believers even though they are not literally true.  Mysteries of Faith are commonly and publicly proclaimed by Believers as displays of loyalty to the church community.  Such mysteries are like flags.  Flags consist of colors and shapes devoid of any intrinsic meaning.  Same thing with oxymoronic declarations of faith.  It is impossible to understand assertions that there are three persons in God or that a virgin had a baby.   Nonetheless, these articles of faith are important as salient rallying points for groups of people working to maintain a sense of community. 

Though largely untrue, the lore of Good Friday is important, then.  It is important for the many believers who look to these bizarre and self-contradictory stories as a way to kindle their sense of community with each other.  

My difficulties with the mysteries of the church are not meant as an attack on those Believers who are good-hearted, decent and tolerant.  There are millions of such people, many of whom are my close friends.  I’ve been inspired by their deep generosity, their willingness to help desperate strangers and their willingness to speak out whenever they see injustice and intolerance.

May those Believers find further motivation for continuing to be good-hearted, decent and tolerant on this Good Friday!

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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. artemis says:

    Hi Erich! I loved singing the "redemption and forgiveness song" to the tune of row, row, row your boat.

    I am still thinking and pondering about a post.

  2. Escapee says:

    Erich, you eloquent scourge of a Skeptic, you…I thoroughly enjoy your multifarious postings and your mental weaponry. Thank you for expanding my armoury of arguments so vastly, and for delighting so in the art of unraveling silly Fundamentalist syntaxes. I have always puzzled over the wilful cruelty of God, and spent a long time trying to justify such behaviour. Then I acquired a ratiocinative uncle and escaped to college:). Thank you-and Anne- for being ongoing sources of Deep Discussion about things that affect the current human,

    Awefully,

    Julia

  3. Joel says:

    Uh…it's sad that so many Christians think this way. You've hit the nail on the head.

    I say that as a Chritstian.

    The Maundy Thursday sermon I heard took the trouble to explain the connection between our sins and Jesus dying.

    The insight that formed the basis of Jesus's teaching could have kept him out in the wilderness, as it has for so many hermit-theologians before and since. But after only a month or so, he decided to take his message into the streets, to try to make a positive difference in the world. Because his message resonated with the people, and began to shake existing power structures, he became a threat. Maintaining order meant silencing him, and the expedient way at that time was execution.

    The sermon was to Christians, who take it for granted that following Jesus can save people from their sins. You've probably had more experience with people whose Christianity actually locks them into destructive patterns of behavior, rather than releasing them. So have I. But I'd like to explain how the actions of Jesus might have freed a few people in his time, and then make a slightly weaker argument involving iteration.

    You'll have to bear with me here, because this may be difficult to imagine, but the religion Jesus was born into was corrupt, and its leaders maintained their power by scapegoating unpopular groups. Furthermore, it was full of arbitrary rules with little basis in reality; the enforcers of those rules had rigged the system for their own gain, at the expense of the powerless.

    Being a shrewd fellow, he also noticed that scapegoating undermines the natural incentive that causes sane people to behave well: members of persecuted groups have no chance of being regarded as good people by the mainstream, no matter what they do. So, in a prisoner's dilemma situation (cf. Axelrod on arbitrary identifiers, Harnessing Complexity), they can generally assume that fellow agents are unlikely to trust them, and so the rational choice is usually the most selfish one.

    Jesus offered them an alternative: "Yes, I'm a Samaritan, so I do have some Palestinian heritage," a follower of his might say, "but now I'm a subject of the Kingdom of Heaven. I'm not loyal to my Philistine ancestors, but to [euphemism for YHWH], the only true King. I saw this guru last week, and he told me 'turn away, and sin no more'. So that's just what I did." And if they actually behaved well, there was half a chance that other residents of Judea would, in fact, begin to trust them.

    The same schtick worked for other outcasts, whom economic circumstances had forced to, e.g., sell their bodies, or worse, to do business with the filthy gentiles in the occupational government. Even a few people whose leprosy had progressed to the non-contagious stage could re-join polite society, if the guru was willing to touch them, and if they promised they'd be good people afterward.

    Saul of Tarsus, in a decision that was controversial at the time, decided to offer this same radical re-identification to the uncircumcized and (ceremonially) unwashed masses. History has mostly justified this decision, though the jury is still out on his choice to co-opt the Egyptian afterlife symbology from the Cult of Isis. At any rate, he taught people to reject the identity of "sinner", and, if Roman records are to be believed, his students worked very hard to treat people well.

    Now let's say there's a member of 20th century society, call him Mr. X. Being a member of a scapegoated group, he isn't trusted, so the most rational way for him to make money is by selfish, criminal activity (though he doesn't break into houses where the bathroom light is left on…he might later advise people to leave the light on while on vacation, to prevent burgularies….). He's caught by the police, and in prison he's offered the chance to adopt a new culture, to radically change his identity. He gets this idea from many sources, including Yeshua of Nazareth. This action forces society to give him a second chance, to suspend their disbelief in his trustworthiness. This might allow him to become a respectable citizen, and to earn his living honestly, which might be seen as "salvation from sin", if seen from a spiritual perspective. If he encourages others to take this same action, it will deprive the existing powers of a valuable pool of scapegoats, and threaten the existing power structure. It being the 1st milennium AD, not the more-enlightened third millenium, in which we live, such a man might be killed to end the threat.

    Wait, I changed my mind…the last inital is too formal. Use a first name instead, like…uh…Malcolm.

    But yes, the message that a person can re-create their identity (even if that identity is one they've been saddled with from birth) is a message that Jesus decided to spread, even though preaching it caused authorities to execute him. And even to this day, that message allows people to start over, to change their evil ways.

    As a Christian, I'm committed to spread that message. Anyone who really follows Jesus's example would lay down his life to save others from the scapegoat-based politics of Fred Phelps, Strom Thurmond, George W. Bush, or Louis Farrakhan…in my opinion. Most of the people who identify as Christian in this country seem to define that word differently. And I can't blame you for following the popular usage of the term.

    I also can't blame you for seeing "Jesus died to save us from our sins" as a non sequitur, when that's how most preachers present it. But it really isn't, in my humble opinion.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Joel: Your interpretation of Jesus sounds very Nietzschean: "What does your conscience say?— 'You shall become the person you are.'" [from The Gay Science, aphorism 270].

  5. Ben says:

    Joel, well spoken. My unanswered question is, how does a Christian determine what is right in cases like, outlawing gay marriage, condoning slavery, outlawing abortion and stem cell research, and teaching intelligent design as theory?

    It seems like most Christians still look to the Bible for moral answers. Just yesterday I heard a "moderate" Christian saying that the ten commandments are God's word. This is the main reason I *fight* religion rather than condone it, the Hypocrisy.

    I do not claim to have the right answers on the cases I raised, but I will no longer let Ancient script CLOUD my judgement on these vital issues WHATSOEVER. Nor do I think it wise for you to advocate ignorance.

  6. Devi says:

    Joel says "religion Jesus was born into was corrupt, and its leaders maintained their power by scapegoating unpopular groups."

    I would submit to you that such power maintenance is nearly universal in all religions. I only use the word 'nearly' because there might yet be one that does not, although I haven't come across it.

    Religion gives people the false authority that its particular believers are better than everyone else. "After all," they reason, "we know the truth, and they don't."

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    It really always rains on Good Friday (somewhere in the world):

    ROME – Pope Benedict XVI presided over the Good Friday night Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum during a driving rainstorm but did not carry the cross as planned during the tradition, which was dedicated to religious freedom this year.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23748185/

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