“All of them deserted him and fled.”
“For many gave false testimony against him. . .”
“All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.”
“. . .and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.”
“They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him.”
With Good Friday (that’s today) we have a microcosm of the worst things that could possibly happen to a human being happening all at once (see the quotations opening this post).
Jesus’s friends abandon him. One of his closest friends betrays him. Another denies knowing him. People lie about him. People take his clothes. People mock him. People make him endure the jeering of crowds and thugs. People beat him. And then they crucify him – exposing him to public humiliation for hours on a painful torture stake.
What’s really fascinating about these events is that it’s the climax of a hero story. Now, I could be wrong, but I can think of few mythic heroes from the time before Christ that portrayed heroes as rejected refuse objects. This one does.
Sure, other heroes before the Christ story faced suffering and setbacks: maybe defeat in battle, maybe treachery from the gods, maybe blindness and foolishness. Suffering is not a new element to hero stories.
But what about social rejection and humiliation? How often were heroes stripped naked, mocked, and rejected by everyone around them? How many descend to the *very bottom* of the social hierarchy? Probably not many. We tend to have a minimum nobility and dignity we require of our heroes. They tend to never lose “hero” status, even in their struggles. Jesus did.
In his Good Friday suffering, Jesus loses all dignity and all identification with the outward qualities of heroism. He looks nothing like a hero by our standards: naked, humiliated, distraught, abandoned – a laughingstock.
And yet he is still a hero. We see it in how he faces his suffering with equanimity, forgiveness, courage, and love. We see it in how (if you believe the story) he comes back to life.
There is much that is psychologically unhealthy in how Christians think about the death of Jesus (penal substitutionary atonement, vicarious atonement, martrydom, to name a few). But I think there’s something profoundly healthy about *this* part of the story.
There are few things more important or more powerful than our ability to conceive of ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. But there are few things more challenging to that self-conception than the times when society (and internal criticism) rejects us. We too are naked, humiliated, distraught, abandoned laughingstocks. If we look outside of ourselves at those moments and can only see well put-together heroes to compare ourselves to, there’s no way that we’ll be able to conceive of ourselves as heroes, too.
We need to be able to look to a hero who knows weakness, “a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isaiah 53). There is no better example than Jesus. In Jesus, we can find a rejected, cast-aside human being with whom we can relate intimately. We can also find a transcendent hero with whom we could identity and who we could imitate in our lives.
We don’t have to just look to the Jesus story for this. Post-Christianity, it is a lot more common to see this kind of hero and this kind of hero story. But there is nothing like the original. However we choose to celebrate (or not celebrate) Easter, we should celebrate this contribution of the Christian story.
But more than that, we should celebrate our own potential for heroism despite all the times when the world (rightly or wrongly) rejects us as unworthy.
Intellectual Credit: Among others in the Christian tradition – my friend Abby Norman, who gave a wonderful sermon today on the familiarity and empathy of Jesus with suffering. This galvanized some of my thinking on this post and on the importance of Jesus’s suffering for individuals facing suffering. And, of course, Jordan Peterson, who regularly speaks on Jesus and sacrifice from a psychological/archetypal analysis.