God, grief and Good Friday: A response to Eusebius McKaiser
After four family deaths in the past six weeks, two of which felt unfair, unjust and "unnatural", I spent most of Good Friday in the comforting embrace of the "Church of Our Holy Duvet", physically and emotionally exhausted, meditating on the meaning of life in the midst of death.
It is within this context that I read Eusebius McKaiser's piece questioning the existence of God.
Being accustomed to McKaiser's annual think-pieces around this topic, this year the piece resonated particularly and poignantly with the manifold questions emerging from my own heart, broken by grief.
McKaiser's arguments against the existence of God are based on his witness of endemic suffering and his experience of sin as conceptualised in his Catholic upbringing. He writes persuasively, as an agnostic, against this god of his Catholic upbringing.
I cannot argue with his experience (because I mostly share the same), nor will I make any attempt to prove the existence of God. Such attempts will inevitably draw us into debates concerning philosophies of divine absolutes.
African-American author Danyelle Thomas reminds us that "there are far too many variables and unknowns to treat our understanding of Christianity as an absolute". And so, I want to consider the meaning of faith beyond absolutes.
Raised with similar views, albeit from a different Christian tradition, I too reject the god of McKaiser's upbringing, because that god is habitually misogynistic, racist and exclusionary. The notions of might, masculinity and militarism dominate the imagination of that god.
I was haunted by this childhood god, created by dogmas that my unbaptised father - who died when I was eight - was burning in hell for nothing else except the sin of non-confession of Jesus as personal saviour.
My rejection made sense until I encountered the possibility of a different god through my engagement with black, feminist and queer scholars.
While many students lose their faith through encounters with Western studies of religion, my own encounter with liberation theologians who disrupt, destabilise and decolonise normative narratives of faith through lived experiences of suffering brought me back to faith.
Despite his strong case against the existence of God, McKaiser reluctantly offers an alternative: "If God does exist at all – and there are no guarantees – then he certainly is less than perfect."
Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a 'recrucified' black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacyJames Cone
This "less than perfect" god, is a god that I discovered anew through the writings of black theologians such as James Cone, who famously drew parallels between the god who dies on a cross and the slaves who die on lynching trees, symbols of gruesome state-sanctioned violence against those who resist injustice.
This is the God that I am drawn to in my grief. Good Friday draws our attention away from the triumphalist god of the crusades to a vulnerable and suffering God.
While normative Christianity beckons us perhaps too hastily to the hope that the resurrection of Easter Sunday offers, my own experience of deep personal grief in these past weeks, and collective grief with the dual pandemics of Covid and gender-based violence, riots and now the floods, I wonder if the kind of questions that McKaiser is asking are truly as offensive to the sensibilities of the believing mind as they might seem.
Are they rather not inviting us on a journey of introspection, an invitation to place our beliefs under some critical examination?
In accepting the invitation to that journey, I do not arrive at agnosticism like McKaiser does, or even at atheism like some other friends. I am, however, grateful for the invitation, since especially in my conservative Christian upbringing, critical questions were dismissed as blasphemous.
My journey with feminist-liberation theologies has brought me to not just a more critical faith, but a more compassionate one. It was this faith that guided me to draft the note that I sent to my beloved niece who is mourning the death of her mother, my cherished sister.
This was the message I sent to her on the morning of Good Friday:
“I’m thinking of you today, sweetheart. I’m trying to find meaning in, and solidarity with, a God who dies. A God who dies unfairly and unjustly. A God who is murdered because he was a political dissident. And I’m wondering what meaning this God has for you, for us, in the midst of grief.
"And while it is easy to reach for the hope that the resurrection story holds for us on Sunday, I want you to know that staying with the sadness and the grief of Friday and Saturday is okay too. It’s okay to feel your feelings - they’re important and real. And like the scholars tell us, Saturday was much longer than 24 hours.
"So while resurrection Sunday may feel like a lifetime away, it will come. For now, just be in the moment. It’s sad. It’s hard. And, like Jesus’s execution, it’s unfair! It’s okay to sit in the fear and shock of Friday, and the sadness and mourning of Saturday.
"The most important thing to know is that you do not sit alone. And when you’re ready to walk through that grieving journey, you do not walk alone either. I’m here. I got you. I love you. We sit together. We walk together. Always…”
Jesus lived in occupied territory, in poverty and misery, and his stories and preaching are all about food, land, liberation from bondage and servitude and get. He preached about providing for those who lacked the most and were considered expendable, as the birds of the air, and yet in Jesus' eyes were where one found the treasure of heaven, here, now, on earthMegan McKenna
While my message to her emerged from a space of compassion and comfort, it also came from a space of critical faith that questions the popular theologies seemingly comfortable with a “Jesus died for my sins and is my personal saviour” doctrine, but are less accepting of the view that Jesus was executed by a religious and political system that considered him dangerous, as feminist theologian Megan McKenna reminds us.
It is unfortunate that McKaiser’s perceived mocking tone obscures a few searching questions that believers may wish to consider.
What does a "less than perfect God" do to, and for, our faith? Might a God of uncertainty and contradictions, a God who mirrors our human complexity, offer a more authentic and liberating possibility for human-divine connection?
I, for one, am not too concerned that the existence of the white, blond, blue-eyed Jesus who featured on the walls of my childhood home is proven false. I am interested, however, in the possibility of a divine-human, brown Palestinian revolutionary who offers us options beyond the binaries of sin and redemption.
As the scholar SimonMary Asese Aihiokhai asserts, "the God of paradoxes will call us into a mode of consciousness that allows us to see ourselves as creatures radically defined by paradoxes".
This, of course, resonates quite well with what McKaiser himself often helpfully reminds us of in his various incisive commentaries: "It is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time."
The decolonial turn in scholarship certainly calls us to dismiss the objective certitude that characterises much of post-Enlightenment thinking, and replace it with multiple, complex and even competing assertions. Indeed, the single story is dangerous.
And so, I’m interested in the existence of the suffering and executed God of Good Friday, and find solidarity and perhaps even some solace there. Whether one is drawn to the Christ of faith, or the Jesus of history, the hope of the resurrection is hope that springs eternal.
But for now, I think it’s also okay to sit with the grief, paradox and uncertainty of Friday and Saturday.
- Prof. Nadar holds the NRF/LMS Desmond Tutu South African Research Chair in Religion and Social Justice at the University of the Western Cape.
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