Good Friday and the God of the Big Stick

Er … ahem … I’m sorry … My name is Jean and I’m … I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do this … Go on, you’ll feel better when you’ve got it off your chest … I’m … you can do it … *whispers* I’m a Christian.

A few years ago I went back to university as a mature student. The tutor for my weekly seminar in Study of Religions was really hot on academic neutrality. The slightest hint of stereotyping. Ill-informed assumptions. Prejudice. He came down on us like a ton of bricks. After class, six or seven of us used to adjourn to the cafeteria together. A few weeks in and we were getting to know each other fairly well. Then one of the girls dropped a bombshell. She told us, slightly red-faced, that she’d been to church on Sunday. As the initial flurry of feathers calmed, we realised several of us were nodding in sympathy. Of the seven round the table that day, five of us were practising Christians. We’d never had the guts to say so.

“I thought he’d tear me to pieces,” said the girl who’d broken the silence. The ‘he’ was our apparently impartial tutor.

We Christians are our own worst enemies when it comes to PR. I wouldn’t give the time of day to the God my atheist friends (and that embittered tutor) don’t believe in. I don’t blame them. But they must have got their concepts from somewhere. Truth is, there are an awful lot of Christians out here who seem hell-bent on keeping heaven to themselves. By making it appear as unattractive as possible to everyone else.

Not all of us subscribe to the concept of a vengeful God. Seated on a cloud. Clutching a fistful of thunderbolts. Flanked by cowering angels strumming harps. And the half-dozen-or-so smug Christians who’ve actually managed to Get It Right. Sadly, those of us who don’t see God that way are really bad at making our voices heard in the hubbub. Nervous of being tarred with a fairly nasty brush if we label ourselves ‘Christian’, we keep our heads as far below the barricade as possible. Hoping we’ll somehow get our point across by making tea and being nice.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t a Christian. No such thing back in the day. I’m not sure he wanted to start a new religion at all. He wasn’t keen on the religious hierarchy. That’s for sure. The problem with religion is it so often boils down to a set of rules. With the God of the Big Stick, waiting gleefully to beat us as soon as we put a foot wrong. I don’t know why we like that idea so much. Am I the only person on earth who’s never going to get anything one hundred percent right? Every minute detail. Every minute of every hour of every day. For ever and ever. World without end. Amen. Because that’s the gold standard religion aspires to. Absolute perfection. No pick-and-choose. No margin for error. No time off for good behaviour. Rules is rules. There’s no fifty percent pass mark when it comes to obeying rules. Not even ninety percent. It’s all or nothing.

Small wonder I’ve heard the question so often. What’s so good about Good Friday? I tried talking through it with a friend a few years back. God loves us. I said. He knows we’re not perfect. We’re never going to be. And we beat ourselves up when we fail. He sent Jesus to take that burden from us. To show us we’re forgiven. Loved utterly. Absolutely. To the point of death. Even when we hate ourselves. When we can’t forgive ourselves. The cost was immense. Forgiveness isn’t an airy wave of the hand. Don’t worry. It’s fine. If it was, there’d have been no need for the crucifixion … My breathless exposition ran dry at that point. My friend was looking utterly bemused.

“Do you actually believe that?”

“Ye-e-es.”

My conviction was wavering as much as my voice.

“So why are you Christians so miserable?”

 

I knew what I was supposed to believe. Trouble was, what I really believed was that God excused minor lapses. Turned a blind eye now and again. After all, I was quite nice really. I’d been a bit wild in the past. But God had probably forgotten all about it by now. All I had to do was get things more-or-less right from here on in. All would be well.

I guess that would be brilliant news for religious people. If it were true. Keep your head down. Keep your nose clean. Well, clean-ish. Don’t actually drive a coach-and-horses through the rule book. And maybe pop a bit extra in the collection plate on Sunday when you do. Everything will be hunky-dory. Not earth-shatteringly wonderful. But OK. On the other hand, it’s really rubbish news for everyone else. What if you don’t know the rules? Or you’ve done something you know darn well God’s never going to forget? And you certainly can’t forget about it. Or you’re poor? Marginalised? Addicted? Homeless? An abuse survivor? The friend I was talking to was all of the above. No wonder he saw through me.

This morning I walked through part of this city I love so much with sixty or so others. We followed two men in white robes, with a makeshift wooden cross. We stopped at various points along the way to pray. Reflect. Sing. One of the stopping points was a place I’ve often visited on the One25 outreach van. We prayed for the city’s vulnerable women. The homeless. The trafficked. The abused. The sex workers. A woman who had once been a regular in the night shelter read from the bible. I stood beside a friend who’s battling demons of addiction and poor mental health. We sang.

Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain … [John Bell]

I’ve come a long way. Words I spoke to my friend as theory I’ve experienced as truth in the last seven years. The good thing about Good Friday is it really does offer love and forgiveness to everyone. Especially to those who are not rich enough. Not well-educated enough. Not ‘nice’ enough. Not religious enough. Which is pretty much all of us really. Life’s often messy. Painful. Brutal. So was crucifixion. Jesus didn’t have to do it. He chose to. Because he loves us. He wanted to make that crystal clear.

But we continue to muddy the waters with religion. With ‘it’s-all-very-well-buts’. With rules and respectabilities. My friend was right. Why are we Christians so miserable? Because we don’t live what we say we believe. We should be pulling down barricades. Tearing up rule books. Demanding mercy. Living generously. Joyously. Dancing and laughing. Love and forgiving. Just as Jesus lived. That’s the way only way we’re ever going to change the world. And I don’t know about you, but I think it’s about due for a change.

 

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All this writing is to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. You can find out more about them by visiting their website at http://www.one25.org.uk/. You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=JeanMutch where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.

 

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