The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Good Friday, Sacrifice, and COVID-19
Several weeks ago, I knew what scripture text would focus these Good Friday reflections. When Holy Week happens in the midst of a pandemic -- when there are countless stories of genuine self-sacrifice, especially among health care workers -- three sentences from the Gospel of John seem unavoidably pertinent.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14)
There's a danger, though, in having several weeks to ponder that text in the context of current events. The passage has implications which are far more complicated that the initial affirmation of those on the medical front lines. Today, I'll look at themes of sacrifice and justice from three very different angles.
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It does seem a bit sacrilegious to quibble with Jesus' final words to his disciples, but maybe he didn't get it quite right. Laying down one's life for complete strangers strikes me as an even greater love than doing so for one's friends. Love for strangers is what we've seen around the world as doctors and nurses place themselves in settings of great danger in the cause of bringing healing and comfort.
Most dramatically, I think of the health care professionals who have volunteered specifically for that sort of heroic service -- the ones who have come out of retirement to staff the overwhelmed facilities, the ones who have left work in relatively safe places to go into the heart of the storm. That choice to risk one's life in a worthwhile cause is a shining example of Jesus' message of love.
Within the great diversity of Christian theology, there are many interpretations of the death of Jesus on the cross. On a previous Good Friday, I wrote:
Within all of that variety, though, most Christian theology says that there is something of profound importance about the voluntary quality of Jesus' death. The stories that we read in the Gospels make it clear that Jesus was not dragged kicking and screaming to the cross. He knew that the flow of events was headed toward his death, and he did not resist them.
It is a blessed and holy thing when people choose a path of sacrifice, motivated by love of God and love of neighbor.
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It is not so blessed and holy when risk and sacrifice are not chosen. Unfortunately, there are way too many examples around us of involuntary risk.
We hear of nurses who chose their vocation of help and healing -- and who did so with the expectation that their work would be done in a safe setting with adequate support. But now they find themselves treating COVID patients without the personal protective equipment that provides a reasonable level of security.
We hear of grocery store workers who suddenly are in a dangerous situation. Their normally placid supermarket is now one of the few settings where crowds of potentially sick people still mingle without proper separation. You can't "practice safe six" when the cashier is just three feet away from a coughing customer in the check-out line.
We hear of tens of millions of people (in the US alone) who are out of work and economically insecure, through no fault of their own. Restaurant workers, performers, retail staff and hotel employees have been laid off, and many of them now face hunger and eviction. The pain and insecurity that they endure is in the service of the common good, but it is not voluntary.
As the pandemic drags on, and as dramatic steps are taken to flatten the curve of infection, a heavy toll is being levied on a substantial slice of the population. It is incumbent on our society to make equally dramatic efforts to provide support and compensation to those who never volunteered to be in this place. Various relief funds have been allocated, but they're proving slow to get to those in need, and the pots of money already are being drawn down before reaching enough people.
Justice demands that there be genuine and significant support for all who have been forced into insecurity -- including the undocumented workers who are left out of most federal relief programs.
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There's another aspect of self-sacrifice which has taken a disturbing twist in these weeks of the pandemic. It has nothing to do with the virus itself, but events during the pandemic clearly illustrate a central theme of the Good Friday story.
Let's remember the harsh detail that Jesus was executed. He was put to death because he was a threat to the status quo. In "The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem", scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan highlight the conflict that shapes the Holy Week story. (I flesh out their thesis in a Notes from 2018.)
Crossan and Borg help us see that Jesus went to Jerusalem, expecting to be killed there, because the realm of God had to be announced in opposition to the dominating rule of Pilate and the empire, and in opposition to the collaboration of the temple priesthood. They wrote,
"It is important to realize that what killed Jesus was nothing unusual. ... this is simply the way domination systems behave. ... At a broad level of generalization, Good Friday was the result of the collision between the passion of Jesus and the normalcy of civilization."
So let us be aware, on this Good Friday, how domination systems and the normalcy of civilization are at work, using the pandemic to strengthen their hold.
This week, a so-called election in Wisconsin went ahead on schedule, forcing citizens to choose between public health and civic responsibility. Absentee ballots were refused, or late, or lost. Hundreds of polling places were consolidated to just a handful of voting sites, with long lines and unsafe conditions. The pandemic became an opportunity for voter suppression, in a state with a despicable record of such disenfranchisement.
In recent weeks, several US states -- including Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia -- have enacted laws dramatically increasing the penalties for protests about fossil fuel infrastructure. The British Independent reported, "While the nation focuses on the mounting coronavirus death toll, mitigating new infections and worrying about the rising tide of unemployment, the legislation is being slipped under the radar, critics say."
I connect that legislative news to Jesus' Holy Week message of self-sacrifice, because many of those fossil fuel protests involve real acts of sacrifice. Think of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. Over a period of months, thousands of "water protectors" encamped to block the pipeline construction, often in harsh weather. In non-violent resistance, they faced off against armed police. Some were soaked by water cannons in freezing weather. The protestors put themselves on the line, sacrificing their time, their resources, their health, even their lives to protect tribal lands, and to protect Earth's climate.
These new laws increase the level of sacrifice for those who stand against the domination system. Felony convictions will now bring much larger fines and longer jail times. Dedicated activists -- who can be seen as witnessing for God's shalom and Earth community -- are being threatened with even higher levels of self-sacrifice. Because, yes, "this is simply the way domination systems behave."
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Anticipating his own death, Jesus told his friends and followers, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."
On this Good Friday, his message of love leads us to deep appreciation of those who voluntarily face risk in providing health care, it calls us to seek justice for those who involuntarily are forced into risk and loss, and it reveals to us how the domination system heightens the conflicts which require sacrificial love and witness.
Good Friday is not just an old story from long, long ago. It is a complex story that is revealed in countless situations in our daily news. May we have eyes of faith to see, and to respond.
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