One reason Jesus died was a failure of religion and people continue to die every day for the same reason.
When we use the word religion we usually mean it either theologically or institutionally. Theologically we speak of Christian, Islamic, Jewish or Hindu religions. Institutionally we speak of rabbis and Torah, imams and mosques, cathedrals and clergy. But when I say that Jesus and countless others have died because of a failure of religion I am speaking literally not theologically or institutionally. The word religion literally means “to put back together.” ‘Ligion’ is the same root as the word ‘ligament,’ the things that holds our bodies together. It comes from the Latin word ‘to bind.’ Re-ligion means to rebind, literally to put back together.
In this literal sense the business of religion is to knit life together, to make sense out of the disparate facts, experiences, and realities that make up our world. One’s religion is the interpretive principle for sorting out, summing up, and surviving. When it is done well people can live creatively, unafraid of the new, undaunted by the unknowable. I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. His life provides the interpretive principle by which I look at life’s multiple messages and determine my own actions, which I try to make creative, unafraid, and undaunted.
Theological religion is important because it is how we describe what literal religion sorts out. Institutional religion is important because it helps us to know how to live out what theology teaches us.
But the heart and beginning of the matter is literal religion: sorting through the experiences of life. Because those experiences are full of surprises, mixed messages, and outright confusion literal religion must be supple and flexible as it confronts unexpected events, ideas, and discoveries. That does not mean accepting everything as good or as from God. It does mean acknowledging that reality includes the bad along with the good, the foolish along with the God-given. The suppleness of religion seeks a way to live in the midst of the cross currents of tragedy and blessing, gain and loss, joy and sorrow, new ideas and heresies, revelations and hallucinations. In contrast, theologies and institutions tend to become rigid and fixed. Indeed the word ‘institution’ shares a common root with the word ‘statue.’ Flexible and supple are not natural adjectives when speaking theologically or institutionally.
So how does all of this tell us that Jesus’ death and countless contemporary deaths are part of a failure of religion?
Jesus had new ideas about God and about how people relate to one another. He raised dramatic questions about the rigidity of theological certainty and the fixed boundaries of society. What is more, his assertions were backed by acts of power and boisterous popular support. Literal religion struggled with him as one can see in people like Nicodemus, the disciples and the on-again off-again crowds. But theological and institutional religion, like the inn of his birth, had no room for him. He simply had to go and Good Friday is the story of how he went.
One reason Jesus died was a failure of religion and people still die from it.
The lethal power of failed religion can be seen today in a continuing and growing pain in our midst, a spreading stain of confusion and discord that haunts us as a community and chills the hearts of more and more families. I speak of suicide—the scourge of returning veterans, the court of last resort for troubled teen-agers, the mystery that hangs in every family tree. Each of those deaths, like that of Jesus, has its unique factors and forces; each has its own story and I do not mean to cheapen that fact when I say that in each case there was a failure of religion. In each case something new, unexpected, overwhelming came into life, something that people’s interpretive principles could not sort out, sum up or ultimately survive. The inability to do the primary work of literal religion, to find a place in reality for tragedy or loss, pain or sorrow leaves no room for the bearer of those things. And when the bearer is oneself, suicide—like crucifixion—is the only way to go.
The death of Jesus on Good Friday has many lessons that have been plumbed for centuries. One of those lessons is the importance and value of supple and flexible religion in the literal sense of the word; the kind of religion that can knit life together and make sense out of the disparate facts, experiences, and realities that make up our world. If the religion of Jesus’ day had been able to do that we would be telling a different story today.
Good religion in this literal sense of the word allows people to sort out, sum up and survive the swift and varied currents of life. The failure of religion in this literal sense of the word erects crosses on Golgotha and in the homes of God’s cherished people. As we know, the crosses of Jerusalem and those in our own homes are not beyond the reach of God’s grace and power, but the crosses are very real. That is what happened in Jerusalem long ago and it is happening in America today.