Dear People of the Diocese of New Jersey,
Here we are, Good Friday…Good Friday. This day is an enigma, a puzzle, and mystery. What could possible be good about it?
At the center of this day hangs a crucified God upon a cross, dead, murdered by the state, the Roman government, lawfully; crucified with the complicit support of the religious authorities. Crucified by humanity, crucified by us, in truth—by us, who crucify God every day in our faithlessness, in our own lovelessness, in our own sinfulness.
Examples abound. Think of the brutality being lived out every day in Ukraine, of the war crimes, atrocities committed against the people of Ukraine, even women and children.
We don’t need to look overseas for atrocities, however. They are right here in the violence that is endemic in this country. Just weeks ago, on March 27 at The Covenant School in Tennessee, three children, Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney, and Hallie Scruggs, all aged 9, age 9, were gunned down, along with substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; custodian Mike Hill, 61; and head of school Katherine Koonce, 60 by 28-year old Aiden Hale who was legally armed with two rifles, at least one an AR-15. Hale was subsequently killed by police on the scene. In addition to the three weapons he had on him, it is reported Hale had four more at home.[i] Guns have made us sick as a nation. Most American acknowledge this.[ii]
On March 30, thousands of protestors gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol to call for stricter gun control laws. Within the chamber of the capitol, three state representatives, Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson led the public gallery in chants of “no more silence”, “we have to do better”, and “gun reform now”, demanding that lawmakers strengthen gun laws. This protest delayed a hearing on a bill designed to expand, to expand, gun access.[iii]
Yesterday, the Tennessee Legislator voted to expel two of the three legislators involved in the protest – Representative Justin Pearson of Memphis and Reverend Justin Jones of Nashville. Both are Black men. By a vote of 65-30, Representative Gloria Johnson was allowed to remain in the legislature. She is white, providing strong evidence that racism is at work in this also.[iv] Sin upon sin.
Tragically, after every high-profile school shooting in this country, gun sales go markedly up.[v] Gun-idolatry. For many, in this country, the gun has replaced the cross as a dominant religious symbol. They could not be more contrary.
In his critically important book The Crucified God,[vi] The German Reformed theologian, Jürgen Moltmann writes:
“There can be no theology of the incarnation which does not become a theology of the cross. ‘As soon as you say incarnation, you say cross.’ God did not become man according to our conception of being a man. He became the kind of man we do not want to be: an outcast, accursed, crucified. Ecce Home! Behold the man…At the same time, Ecce Deus! Behold God! God on the cross.”[vii]
“When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God” the meaning is ‘this is God, and God is like this.’ God is not greater than he us in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.”[viii]
For Moltmann, as much as it was for his own mentor and teacher the renowned Karl Barth, the Cross of Christ is not so much a symbol of humanity’s faithfulness to God as it is a symbol of God’s faithfulness to humanity.
In truth, faithfulness, absolute faithfulness, trust, and belief in the power of God’s love is, or at least feels to be, beyond reach for most of us. Only the true saints of the faith, especially the martyrs, come close to this kind of self-giving and self-surrender. Most of us make more or less feeble attempts, but then turn to other, lesser things for our security: material possessions, braggadocious, corrupt, authoritarian political figures, religions and gospels of prosperity, or Christian Nationalism filled with stridency and certainties often lacking in love, sacrifice and concern for “the least of these.” In our contemporary American culture, a most unfaithful, hyper-individualism is at work in which we see ourselves as the primary source of security and strength, the only beginning and the end of all things, in which “my rights” are the only rights that matter.
All of these are contrary to the message of the Cross and Christ crucified, contrary to faithfulness and trust in the crucified God. Despite this, he who has promised is faithful and on God’s faithfulness and love we can rely.
That’s the central significance of this day. It’s why we call this Friday “Good.”
God bless you and keep you.
The Right Rev. William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jersey
[i] See 2023 Covenant School shooting – Wikipedia
[ii] See AP-NORC Poll: Most in US Say They Want Stricter Gun Laws (usnews.com)
[iii] See Wikipedia 2023 Covenant School Shooting art. cit.
[iv] See Fawecett, Eliza and Cochrane, Emily “Tennessee House Expels Two Democratic Lawmakers” New York Times, April 6, 2023 found at Tennessee House Ousts 2 Democratic Lawmakers: What to Know – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
[v] See Gun Sales Surge After Mass Shootings, And So Do the Shares of Firearms Companies | Observer
[vi] Moltmann, Jürgen The Crucified God – 40th Anniversary Edition (Fortress Press,2015)
[vii] Moltmann, Jürgen The Crucified God – 40th Anniversary Edition (Fortress Press,2015)
[viii] Moltmann, p. 294