A risk assessment for a typical English Good Friday would conclude that there is no undue cause for concern as far as the religious element of the bank holiday is concerned. It is as threatening as a children’s play area. Safe, benign and predictable would adequately describe what is likely to unfold; bold revolutionary fervour challenging the dominant world order, does not. The Stations of the Cross might as well refer to a succession of sleepy rural stopping places on a bucolic 1950’s branch line railway, for all the sense of radical resistance to the forces of oppression which they engender nowadays. The crucifixion too is stripped of anything which might offend our sensibilities. It has the character of the classic black and white ‘Brief Encounter’ type of British Cinema: cut glass accents, impeccable manners, emotions acknowledged but held firmly in check, all stiff-upper lip, decent and upper middle-class. All this is wrapped around with ‘there is a green hill’ sentimentality and topped off with a doctrinal framework of substitutionary atonement which resembles an out of court settlement reached between specialists in corporate litigation.
For 2000 years Christians have been unwilling or unable to stomach the truth that Jesus was murdered by the state. Now this is not something your average official state religion is going to major on when the time comes to celebrate the events of Holy Week. Not a wise move during the time of the Roman Empire under Constantine for sure. Nor for that matter during the British Empire under Queen Victoria. The prospect of the church encouraging the general populus to reflect annually upon the seedier aspects of imperial power and of the consequences of their being governed by ruling elites would have been viewed as treasonable and seditious, something to be avoided at all costs. Far better to doctrinalise its power away and make it an individual issue between the believer, God and Jesus Christ. Better to say that he died for them than admit that he was murdered by the state for being a troublemaking one of them. A neat trick this, which has served the alliance between church and state well down the centuries.
But put into contemporary terms the truth of Holy Week still has the power to shock.
The interplay between civil liberties and the rights of the individual versus the collective security of the state are current, pressing and very much in the news. Torture, extraordinary rendition and imprisonment without trial are not just tactics of the Roman Empire in the time of Christ, or of Stalin's Soviet Union, they are practised now in the name of western democracies, allegedly for our common benefit. States do not take kindly to citizens questioning their methods and motivation. We are expected to accept that such things are necessary in order for us to sleep safely in our beds. Politicians loathe being held to account for their actions.
Holy Week is a wake up call from God which should inspire us to non-violent action. If it renders us compliant and tame it has failed utterly. If it reawakens in us a sense of holy outrage against all that conspires to oppress and harm ordinary people then it will have achieved its purpose, for then we will truly be following in the footsteps of Jesus. A Very English Crucifixion is the last thing we need. An authentic Palestinian one, complete with the horrors of foreign military occupation and oppression, most certainly is.
So the death of Jesus is not safe, benign and predictable. In no sense is it a play area for children. It is dangerous. This is risky territory, not to be entered lightly. It is the spark which ignites the flame of radical action and which changes lives forever. It is holy ground and the place where good and evil, light and darkness, fight to the death. And new life, rising, has the last living word.