In the story “Life of Pi” recently made into a movie, which some of you may’ve seen or read the book, the main character’s name is Pi. Already as a young boy, Pi starts to explore different religions: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
His curiosity and enthusiasm leads him to embrace and participate in many of the key rituals and traditions of each of these religions – and all at the same time!
So while he’s praying 5 times a day according to Islamic practice, he’s also chanting Vedic mantras at a home-made Hindu shrine, while at the same time reading the Gospels, and preparing for Christian baptism.
His parents think this is all a bit too much, too odd, too funny, but Pi keeps on being committed to his quest for God.
One of the observations about Christianity that Pi picks up on, is the whole event of Jesus’ death on the cross. In fact, the whole question as to why Jesus had to die on the cross, why God would “require” the death of Jesus to save the world, keeps him stuck, and keeps him from fully embracing the Christian religion.
Why is that? Why does Pi get stuck here?
There are different ways which Christians and non-Christians, over the centuries, have come to understand the death of Jesus on the cross.
One such way that’s gained some popularity has been referred to as “the substitutionary atonement theory.” It’s the idea that Jesus had to serve as a sacrificial substitute for the rest of humanity; that God demanded the death of one man, Jesus, in order to erase the sins of all humanity.
The problem with this understanding is that it betrays a troubling image of God, one who is ultimately very cruel, punishing, vengeful and frightful.
And if you really think about it, as Pi did, you’d wonder: What kind of God would do this – demanding a substitute victim on which to exercise his wrath so that the rest of humanity doesn’t have to suffer? And what’s more: what sort of twisted Father would ask this of his Son?
Pi is right. Who’d ever want to follow this kind of God? This kind of death-dealing, frightful Being?
As we observe the liturgy of this Holy Day, Good Friday, we have a perfect opportunity to reflect carefully, thoughtfully, and biblically on the event of Jesus’ death.
It’s important to pause, and really go back to the scriptures to study them, and realize, that if truth be told, the kind of God that is truthfully revealed in the death of Jesus, is not a cruel God, but the exact opposite – a deeply loving God. A God who knows that nothing can ever be solved through cruelty, and violence; that the only way for Good to prevail is through forgiving love, non-violent action, and creative, peaceful alternatives to the kind of brute violence that Jesus himself was subjected to.
Remember, Jesus did not react, did not respond in kind with violence.
All along, throughout his ministry, Jesus knew that as fallen, broken human beings, we’re all caught up in a cycle of violence. Each selfish act inevitably affects those around us, and, in something of a domino effect, leads them to react in some selfish, and self-defensive way. One returns evil for evil, and so it goes, so it spreads, ultimately leading to violence.
Already in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah sees with prophetic clarity, that the only hope of ending this cycle of violence would be for someone to allow the full force of brute violence to be acted upon them, and then, not react with violence, without passing it on to others.
In doing so, the cycle is interrupted. The pattern of retributive violence, retaliation and “tit-for-tat” is stopped in its tracks, disarmed. And Good is finally able to make a foothold.
In allowing violence to be acted upon himself, without reacting, to the point of death on the cross, Jesus overcomes evil with good, defeating the powers that be, and showing us and the world that love is stronger than hate, that God’s life is stronger than death.
Today, when the evil powers of violence and hatred act upon us, God promises to be with us in the Spirit of Jesus, to give us the strength and courage to do what St. Francis prayed: to sow love where there is hatred, pardon where there is injury, faith where there is doubt, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, and joy where there is sadness.
And in so doing, we know that we are making a difference, making the world a better place for all, and giving witness to the life and love of God.
An amazing true story emerges from the years following Nelson Mandela’s presidency in South Africa, at the time when Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, which dealt with the atrocities and violence of apartheid.
In one TRC hearing, the court heard the horrendous crime of a certain policeman, Van de Broek, who with other policeman shot and killed an eighteen year old boy, and burned his body outside his home.
Eight years later, Van de Broek returned to the same house, seized the boy’s father, and with the wife forced to watch, bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body, and ignited it.
The courtroom went silent as the now elderly woman who had lost her son and husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. Van de Broek?” the judge asked.
In a quiet voice, she said she wanted him to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body in order to gather up the dust there so she could give him a decent burial.
And then she added a further request, that twice a month, he come to the ghetto where she now lived, and spend a day with her, so she could be a mother to him. She said, “I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him, too. I would like to embrace him as a mother, so he can know my forgiveness is real.”
A real interruption in the cycle of violent retribution happened here.
Some real healing began here.
Evil was overcome by Good.
The Spirit of God in Jesus was alive here.
The cross is not a brutal sign of a cruel and twisted God demanding the sacrificial death of his Son. No.
It is a sign of love, of life, triumphing over all.