Today is Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross. Why is that good? Because he accepted it. Even though Jesus articulates human anguish ("Why have you forsaken me?") and conflict ("If it be your will, let this cup pass from me."), he willingly suffers the greatest pain and the deepest humiliation in order that mankind can see death conquered and find a path to salvation. It was a sacrifice.
We cannot be perfect but we can try to be better.
Could we do the same? God only knows; it’s better that we never have to find out. But humans certainly can be Christ-like. I’m reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, an oral history of the accident on April 26, 1986 that blew up a reactor at the Chernobyl power plant and spewed radioactive poison across the USSR and Europe. The book defies expectations. I expected it to be a howl of rage, for eyewitnesses to demand justice and payment for the horrors they endured.
The opposite is true. It seems that the Soviet system was bureaucratic, callous, incompetent, but the Soviet themselves were heroes. Conscripts and volunteers cleaned up Chernobyl with barely any protective clothing. They were called “soldiers of the fire”. To them, it was like a war – and the war liberated them from the numbing constraints of communism to choose to do the right thing. A soldier told Alexievich: “Out there, you were finally free and needed. Freedom! At moments like that, the Russian people show how great they are. How special! We’ll never be like the Dutch or Germans. And we’ll never have good roads or groomed lawns. But we’ll always have heroes.”
Again, the question – can we say the same? Sam Kiley, Sky News' foreign editor, recently wrote that “thin skins, wobbly chins, and sense of immediate entitlement” have turned British Millennials into feckless cowards. “Britons are no longer made of the stuff that is written in granite on the memorials to two world wars on every single village in the country.”
How does he know? We can only test the mettle of a nation in the midst of a war or a disaster and, thankfully, we have neither. Older Soviets made similar complaints about their young in the years before they sent them to die in Afghanistan and Chernobyl. Likewise, you’ll find plenty of screeds written about rising juvenile crime in Thirties’ Britain – a decade in which the Oxford Union voted that it would never again fight for king and country. Historically, the young have always seemed decadent, lazy or even slightly frightening. Right up the moment when they called to serve and turn out to be just as willing to sacrifice as their elders were.
Narcissism is part of the human condition, but so is heroism. Alexievich details cruelty but also compassion – such as the note pinned to an evacuated house that asked soldiers to look for a mute old lady who had gone missing. The villagers had always looked after her and took it in turn to sit with her at night. They wanted her home where they knew she was safe and could be looked after. That kind of sacrifice is a daily, unseen occurrence in modern Britain. If you’ve ever cared for a disabled or dying person, you’ll know it can be like war. The willingness of people – without conscription or payment – to give up their lives to look after someone is worth a memorial, too.
Compared to Jesus, we seem like wayward children. But we’re invited to try to be Christ-like. Look and see! We cannot be perfect but we can try to be better.