Pope Francis is saying and doing all the right things. He’s eating meals with prisoners. He’s washing the feet of the disabled and the elderly. He’s living in a humble apartment and has rejected Vatican comforts. Imagine if someone nailed him to a cross for it?
Today is Good Friday, the day Christians commemorate the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It’s also the day I’m most proud to be a Catholic, and the one that most bleeds into the reasons I’m a journalist. But you don’t have to be Christian, or religious at all, to feel the deep wisdom of the day.
Jesus Christ was a rebel. He treated women, foreigners, lepers, the poor all as equals. In some ways, he treated those marginalized groups as superior to the powerful of his time. He embarrassed the power structure constantly, most of all hypocritical church leaders (a lesson we continually forget). For that, he was brutally murdered.
Today, in a world yearning for leaders who aren’t simply opportunists, Pope Francis is winning hearts and minds through the simplest of acts. He calls random people and wishes them happy holidays. He utters “Who am I to judge?” and an entire class of people finally feel respected. He sets up a commission to study the heinous act of pedophilia and puts women, and a victim, in positions of power.
Cynical observers — and don’t us Catholics deserve cynical observers — can say these are mainly words, and they are right. Unless these words and symbols are followed by actions, they will ultimately be meaningless. After all, talk is cheap. At least, today it is.
In Christ’s time, talk could get you killed. Imagine Pope Francis being hauled across Rome in a public spectacle, then nailed to a tree and allowed to bleed out before angry crowds for saying “love the poor.” That’s what happened to Christ, and its happened to a long list of heroes since Christ, too.
Christianity’s focus on this graphic, brutal event is unusual in the annals of world religions. While Easter and Christmas get the headlines, Good Friday provides the Great Lesson. Christ suffered for doing and saying the right things. Suffering, Christ seems to teach us, is a necessary part of justice. Christ doesn’t merely tell us to struggle, to fight, to feels the slings and arrows that come from critics. He lived it. He’s right there with us. He’s one of us.
Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on struggle, of course. The first lesson of Buddhism is “life is suffering.” But Christianity’s emphasis on the pain of Christ, and on this singularly bloody and humiliating event, is a beautiful lesson and inspiration to all in the midst of struggle, religious or not.
Our time knows no shortage of struggle. Economic anxiety and overwork have led many Americans to crazy choices — 90-minute commutes, three jobs, mountains of student loans. All this anxiety can force people to do things they don’t feel comfortable with. I’ve often remarked that if workers didn’t participate in slimy hidden fee schemes and sales tactics, corporations couldn’t carry out their sinister Gotcha Capitalism tactics on us. If middle-class mortgage brokers refused to sell toxic mortgages to homebuyers, we wouldn’t have had a housing bubble.
While many workers feel they have to choice but to do these things to feed their families, others fight back. Next week, I will write the story of a telemarketer who walked out on his company when it started forcing employees to trick customers into buying timeshares. He just couldn’t take it. He may or may not be Christian — I have no idea, I didn’t ask — but he is now suffering for doing the right thing.
The promise of Good Friday is not that Christ takes suffering away, or somehow makes our lives easier. The promise is that our suffering will not be in vain.
On Good Friday, I often think about the good souls who have shared their stories with me, usually at great personal risk, because they wanted to help me expose some truth. Often, they have been publicly criticized, ostracized, and even fired. In the vast majority of cases, these were ordinary people who had nothing to gain other than a clean conscience and the usually vague sense that they’d done some good.
I’d go crazy if I didn’t believe that their suffering was not in vain. And whether or not they believe in Christ, or have even heard of Christianity, I know deep inside every one of them had a deep sense that it’s ok to suffer for some higher ideal, such as Justice or Truth. For me, the chance to celebrate this central tenet of humanity makes this a very Good Friday.