Along with most Christians, I have been reflecting on the death of Jesus this Lenten season. How odd, it seems, that we now call the darkest day of history Good Friday, and that the cross, an emblem of brutal execution, has become the symbol of our faith.

By way of explanation, theologians propose various theories of the atonement, and point ahead to Easter as a template of how God redeems tragedy into triumph. Something else, however, captures my interest this year: the effect of Jesus’ death on history. As the Misfit in one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories put it, “Jesus thrown everything off balance.”

I once attended a retreat with a prominent Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar. She introduced herself by saying, “I am quadruply marginalized. I am a feminist woman in a male-dominated society. I am a Christian from a predominantly Muslim society. I am a Palestinian, a people without a country. And here in the United States I am a racial and cultural minority.”

Soon after that retreat I came across the writings of René Girard, the late French philosopher who taught for years at Stanford University. Girard was fascinated with the fact that in modern times a “marginalized” person has a kind of moral authority. In our group, for example, the Palestinian woman’s identity gained her instant respect. Girard noted that a series of liberation movements—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, animal rights, gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights, human rights—had gathered speed in his lifetime. The trend mystified Girard because he found nothing comparable in his study of ancient literature.

Winners, not losers, wrote ancient history, and the myths from Babylon, Greece, and elsewhere celebrated strong heroes, not pitiable victims. Girard ultimately traced the phenomenon back to the historical figure of Jesus, whose story cuts against the grain of every heroic account from its time. Jesus took the side of the underdog: the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the marginalized. Indeed, Jesus himself chose poverty and disgrace, spent his infancy as a refugee, lived in a minority race under a harsh regime, and died as a condemned prisoner.

The crucifixion, Girard concluded, introduced a new plot to history: the victim became a hero by offering himself as a willing victim. In the words of W. H. Auden: “The idea of a sacrificial victim is not new; but that it should be the victim who chooses to be sacrificed, and the sacrificers who deny that any sacrifice has been made, is very new.” To the consternation of his secular colleagues, Girard converted to Christianity.

When Jesus died as an innocent victim, it introduced what one of Girard’s disciples, Gil Baillie, has called “the most sweeping historical revolution in the world, namely, the emergence of an empathy for victims.” Today the victim occupies the moral high ground everywhere in the Western world: consider how the media portray the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa or Tibetan refugees or uprooted Palestinians. Girard contended that Jesus’ life and death brought forth a new stream of liberation in history, one that undermines abusive power and injustice.

The Christian gospel ushered in a stunning reversal of values that went on to affect the entire world. The stream often moved slowly, and yet Girard concluded that the world’s care for the marginalized and disenfranchised came about as a direct result of the cross of Jesus Christ. It took centuries for that stream to erode a hard bank of oppression, as with slavery, but the stream of liberation flowed on. Wherever Christianity took root, care for victims spread. To mention just one example, in Europe of the Middle Ages the Benedictine order alone operated 37,000 monasteries devoted to the sick.

Even an outspoken critic of the faith, Bart Ehrman, admits in a recent book that Christianity was the first reform movement to champion and elevate the weak, to question a social order in which the strong have a right to dominate the weak. Today, if you Google indices that measure such values as economic freedom, press freedom, charitable giving, earth care, gender equality, quality of life, human rights, and lack of corruption, you will find that with very few exceptions Christian-heritage nations receive the highest ratings.

Modern activists draw their moral force from the power of the gospel unleashed at the cross, when God took the side of the marginals. In a great irony, the “politically correct” movement often positions itself as an enemy of Christianity, when in fact the gospel has contributed the very underpinnings that support such a cause. Sometimes Jesus’ own followers join the stream, and sometimes they stand on the bank and watch. Yet those who condemn the church for its episodes of violence, slavery, sexism, and racism do so by gospel principles, arguing for the very moral values that the gospel originally set loose in the world.

The liberating gospel continues to leaven a culture even when the church takes the wrong side on an issue. Advances in human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, minority rights, and disability rights have found success because of a widespread sympathy for the oppressed that has no parallel in the ancient world. Classical philosophers viewed mercy and pity as character defects; not until Jesus did that attitude change.

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus told his disciples. God’s expression in Jesus took the world by surprise, and the reverberations have not stopped. In a culture that glorifies success and grows deaf to suffering, we need a constant reminder that at the center of the Christian faith hangs an apparently unsuccessful and suffering Christ, who died ignominiously.

The apostle Paul touched on a deep truth about Jesus’ contribution in his claim to the Colossians: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” A public spectacle it was when Jesus exposed as false gods the very powers and authorities in which good citizens take such pride. The most refined religion of the day accused an innocent man, and the most renowned justice system carried out the sentence.

Another French philosopher, Jacques Ellul, said, “We must always come back to this essential point, that God rules by love and not by strength”: an important reminder in a time when tribalism and the politics of division tempt us toward the opposite. These days, debates about immigration, race, sexuality, refugees, and health care feed that division. I cannot pretend to have solutions to those problems. As I ponder the example of Jesus, though, I pray for the grace-healed eyes through which he viewed the world.




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23 responses to “What Makes Friday Good?”

  1. Alexis Sol Ganaden says:

    This is the first time I read your blog, as I had been really curious about the things you wrote on “Reaching for The Invisible God” and “Finding God in Unexpected Places”, which are great by the way, making me want to read more from your works.

    And this topic has been bringing me great confusion and the same time gratefulness simply because it is unusual and I feel undeserving of it. But when you lay things down this way, it becomes clear.

    However, I do understand that this event also brought great conflicts among us since Jesus gave us [victims] a voice, there is no denying of the fact that few may be abusing such a pure and wonderful gift.

    Nonetheless, since this event resounds through the ages, I know that this is more on where to set your eyes upon and where no to.

    Thanks, Philip!

  2. Phillip Hattingh says:

    When we focus on Jesus first, the issues of social pathology, moral failures of humanity as inveloped in religion, Christianity, the Church, worldviews, philosophies, ideologies and inhumane practices and disregard for our shared space, place and encironment, our misgivings as followers of Christ, dissipate. Then Christ shines as the Hero and we shake off our own ‘victimness’. We then know He is not only for society’s victims, but WITH them. This gives joy and hope and energises our God-given mission as humans and practicing Christians.
    Thanks for the historical and contemporary insights you share!

  3. Ann O'Malley says:

    In these days when many Westerners condemn the church for its episodes of violence, slavery, sexism, and racism, I appreciate this article that states so clearly the impact of Christ and Christianity on the world.

    My parents left the church not long after I was born. As a baby boomer, I was one of the few children growing up in my neighborhood who rarely attended church. I accidentally heard the gospel for the first time as a young teenager, and became a Christian several months later.

    There was enough biblical literacy in our culture at that time that, even though I had very little religious instruction at home or church, I had certain impressions about who God is and what the Bible says. One impression was that the God of the Old Testament was primarily defined by His anger and judgment. But as I picked up a Bible for the first time and began reading it from cover to cover, I was amazed and excited to learn that even in the Old Testament, He expressed His deep concern for the poor and the oppressed. From the beginning, He was laying the foundation for the stunning reversal of values introduced by the Christian gospel.

    We American believers badly need those grace-healed eyes. In these divisive times, that could be our greatest witness to the world around us.

    Thank you for taking the time to minister to us through this blog.

  4. Lynne McCleery says:

    I know He took the side of sinners. I know He came to save. All men. Regardless of their sin.
    How many homosexuals will not be saved based on their experience of Christian condemnation?
    Next time He will come to judge.
    All men, regardless of their sin.
    May I never be a stumbling block to a sinner coming to know the love and grace of God through Jesus.
    There is none righteous, no not one.

  5. Calvin says:

    Loved your article. Thank you and totally agree with you and pray that in the midst of all the divisions everywhere that the world will see Jesus for who he truly is and what he clearly demonstrated. When are you coming to South Africa again?

  6. Scott Walker says:

    Jesus’ love for the marginalized was always at the individual level. From Zachius to the women at the well to the man called Legion, he addressed them personally, indeed intimately, with recognition of their unique history. Where movements go wrong is in placing the group identity above the individual. The Palestinian Christian Woman may not have been absolutely unique, but she was certainly not part of any mass movement. When Identity prevails over individuality, evil ensues. Racism is identity driven. Communism. Marxism. Sexism. Inverting the values to raise a “group identity” always ALWAYS fails to meet the needs of the individual. God relates to us one on one, without reference to our man made group identity. We need to relate to each other in the same way.

  7. Angie says:

    God’s expression in Jesus took the world by surprise, and the reverberations have not stopped. In a culture that glorifies success and grows deaf to suffering, we need a constant reminder that at the center of the Christian faith hangs an apparently unsuccessful and suffering Christ, who died ignominiously.
    Thanking God for yr writing always.
    It’s the authentic view always that you give which reverberates in my mind.-God Bless you and yours!

  8. Larry Mais says:

    Stop, hey what’s that sound? The sound of another Yancey home run. Outstanding piece !!!!. Keep this up & you’ll have a book one day…ha ha…just kidding…you are one of my two favourite authors. Your writing challenges me & helps fuel my passion to serve Jesus. Thank you for being true to your calling…Amazing Grace indeed…

  9. Elsie Wietzke says:

    Your words are a gift! I am so grateful that Jesus is on the side of the “other. ” And I am thankful that He has relieved me of the task of sitting in judgement of others. Christ handles that, along with all else. Thank you, Philip, for your spiritual insight. I treasure your writing.

  10. Tim Garner says:

    Philip, It’s your friend Tim from a while back on FB. You really do fill in all the pieces that Jesus came to the world for. As he said he came to save the lost, basically all of us. I believe the Church is growing in nations like China, Nigeria and even Syria because they are oppressed by their own Governments, thrown in prison or executed. It’s relevant because in contrast we in the United States feel the pressure of their suffering. While at the same time we have forgotten to LOVE our own lost and suffering when it is much easier than those countries and the movements you discuss have split us into certain groups when in reality we are all human beings and suffer. The difference is are our actions out of LOVE or spite? If we follow Jesus as I try every day to do even though I surely sin, are we held to a larger standard. I would say yes but only if we LOVE together as God loves us. You are magnificent in your thoughts of who Jesus and God truely are. Thank you time and time again for your insightful approach.

  11. Mary Ellen Troast says:

    As my family and friends watched my slow descent into depression and alcohol, they thought it was such a waste of a girl who had achieved high academics. It did look dire, a horrible suffering. I too began to feel hopeless.

    Couldn’t God have rescued me years before knowing it wasn’t fair? Today at almost 65 I have the peace and sobriety I yearned. I remember thinking at one healthy, spiritual point, Lord send me! He did and today I have a wealth of experience, strength, and hope for anyone and everyone.

  12. John says:

    Really thankful for this word today, Philip. Thank you.

  13. Eddie Chu says:

    The Transparency International world “heat map” correlates with the “Happiness Index” widely published by the press. It’s interesting indeed to note that the degree of wellness of humanity seems to align with the degree of “Christianization” of the nations. The impact of Christ on humankind is indeed disruptive and overwhelmingly positive, human frailty, selfishness, and greed notwithstanding.

  14. Michael Vlahos says:

    This is a beautiful and poignant reflection…thank you for these words.

  15. David Cumby says:

    Wonderful article and perspective Philip … I also think that there are many wonderful OT links/parallels in God’s choosing/forming of Israel as his covenant people, and the provision/requirements made within the Mosaic law with regards to the hurting, downtrodden and marginalized among them and for those came in among them!

  16. Hello Mr. Yancey (cousin 😉),

    Great article!! I especially liked the point about how without Jesus, there is no moral foundation for what “liberals” base their arguments for equal rights. I really would not consider myself a member of any political party and I’m still struggling with rediscovering my faith. I grew up in a Christian conservative home, but after a recent divorce and finding out the Father who introduced me to Christianity noe considers himself bisexual, and the state of the Christian Church which resembles corporate America, amongst many other things…I’ve been questioning everything.

    Please pray for me during this challenging time of learning to trust God all over again and keep up the awesome writing.

    Best regards,

    Aaron J. Yancey

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I will, Aaron (Your last name will be easy to remember). You’re not the only one with these struggles. Focus on Jesus, not his followers, if you can. –Philip

  17. Steve Kamerick says:

    Thanks Philip for this observation and revealing truth regarding how we humans with rather small and self-centered world evolved expressions of empathy and love have made Jesus’ life message and mission the foundation of how we can, without a doubt, view and better understand God. His heart and emotions for the greatest of all His creations, humans, rises above every thought we try to summarize as how God views us, tolerates, forgives, teaches, disciplines, and grieves over the loss of even one of the billions of souls who live on His earth but ignore the message of His love, to the point of the sacrifice of Jesus’ life. His life for mine is beyond love itself. I still cry on and before that “Good Friday”

  18. Pamela Gayle Allnutt says:

    I just had cataract surgery on both eyes and have been walking around in amazement for the past two weeks as I look on the world with amazing clarity and freshness, and yet, without “grace healed eyes”, my view of the world is still sunk in sin and disillusionment. Thank you for this phrase that will stick in my mind and heart through this season of Lent.

  19. Cara says:

    Amazing reassurance 💞

  20. Rodney Otto says:

    Thanks for your insights so relevant when the church is struggling to find its significance and center in society. The slow ebbing of social significance of denominations and church buildings have dominating my search as an LCMS pastor to find a proclamation that will encourage the faithful believer about the Kingdom of God. We have a wonderful little book called “Joining Jesus” by Greg Finke who talks about a cultural shift and seeing God at work in your neighbor and joining Jesus in what he is already doing in our neighbor’s heart. A seeking in hearts for the Father in heaven and a passion for someone hurting is often the door into the Kingdom, generated by individuals untouched by organized Christianity, but set on fire for the kingdom by acts of mercy in a difficult world. Thanks for identifying that work of God in our world and hints about iiving in a polarized church and country right now.

  21. Ingrid Harder says:

    Thank you so very much for your insight. My heart thrives on the simple understanding of what can send so complicated. Keep sharing, your words are important to all. God bless you!

  22. Tour d’Ivoire says:

    Let’s be clear: Jesus did not “took the side of” homosexuality/homosexuals, although they existed at his time. Neither did Paul, his apostle.

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