Loneliness, Abandonment, Death
By Charles Rush
April 8, 2001
John 19: 1-25
ere is an extraordinary violence in these texts that is difficult for modern readers to identify with in an immediate way, though the movie Gladiators has made that somewhat more accessible. It is said that during the Gladiatorial games more than a third of Rome turned out to see the battles that lasted all the day. There was a lunch break in the middle of the day. Imagine seeing men killed all morning and grabbing a pizza to talk about it.
like the one on which Jesus was hung, were apparently visible on a daily basis
on the road going up to Jerusalem. They were a visceral reminder of the
consequences of defying the Roman Empire and its Imperial power. Crucifixion
was a Roman invention, designed to create a maximum agony through a slow death.
Romans were not alone in their deployment of violence as a regular part of the
political process. Ross MacKenzie depicts several scenes in Carthage in his
novel Hannibal in which torture and humiliation are taken for granted in
punishment. In one scene, which will suffice to make the gruesome point, the
Admiral Hanno returns to Carthage after a terrible fate of the wind caused his
navy to sail straight into Roman clutches. All the men in the Navy were killed,
the boats destroyed, Hanno’s boat and two others the only ones to escape. The
defeat gave Rome decisive advantage and all Carthage could see that Roman
conquest of their homeland was imminent.
grief, outrage, and frustration. Hanno was captured and marched through the
streets, with his arms locked behind his back. The great Admiral, the great
conqueror had his beard torn off, was beaten, and spit upon by the whole city
of Carthage which turned out to form a long line for the occasion. By the time
he got to the town square, he was bloody from head to waist. A sentence was
handed down. He was flogged. Feces and urine were poured upon him and he was
impaled on a stick, measured so that it stopped just short of his heart and lungs,
which would have killed him. It took hours, sometimes days to die. It was not
lived in a world where he saw this kind of torture each and every week of his
life. It was a world where the Roman authorities exercised unilateral and arbitrary
power and there was very little recourse if you were one of the subjected
peoples of the Empire. He must have known, from the inception of his ministry
the very real dangers that would likely beset him. He was in a contest, as Bill
Coffin has noted, between loveless power and powerless love.
middle of our passage has a brief but touching exchange between Jesus and
Pilate that highlights this contrast. Pilate is asking Jesus if he claims to be
King of the Jews, a rival threat to Roman authority. Jesus responds by saying
“I came into the world to testify to the truth” (18:37).
is unclear from the text what impact that response had on Pilate. Pilate asks
him, “What is the truth?” It is a question that could be asked by a cynical
relativist who knows that reality revolves around the execution of power and
has given up on the quest for virtue and integrity. But, perhaps the question
is partially for real. From the gospel of John and the synoptic accounts as
well, it appears that Pilate struggled with the fate of Jesus quite a lot. It
appears that he bothered his conscience. Perhaps Pilate was actually
half-hoping for some wisdom from the Prophet from Nazareth, something that he
could hook on to that might give him some insight. Perhaps, it was precisely
because he was daily involved in ambiguity and compromise that he would welcome
some wisdom that would clarify things for him. He may not be all that different
from some of us.
exchange is brief. Jesus does not give an answer. There is torture all around
them. Jesus has been drawn into the demonic whirlpool of arbitrary violence and
injustice that was the experience of all occupied people in the Roman Empire.
This exchange is a prelude to torture. It was not the time for a philosophical
this case, the silence of the innocent was deafening. At this point, the
spotlight begins to focus narrower and narrower, with intensity on the
suffering love of Jesus. In the beginning of the story the spotlight is wide
angle, encompassing the whole of his ministry in Judea and Galilee, his
encounters with Samaritans and other Gentiles. As he turns towards Jerusalem,
it narrows to focus on him with the crowds. It narrows still further with his
final teaching with the disciples and their prayer together in Gethsemane. It
narrows further still with his encounter with Ciaphas and Annas, the religious
leaders. It narrows further and gets brighter in his encounter with Pilate.
After Pilate asks his question, “what is truth”, the rest of the stage begins
to noticeably darken and the spotlight on Jesus is raised. It is really for
this that he has come. It is in the face of unjust power that the deeper
spiritual meaning of Jesus teaching comes into focus.
Christian claim is that it is precisely at the point where Jesus is victim that
he is also viator, the one who makes a way through. Jesus does not
resist violence and arbitrary power, but in absorbing it, he takes it into the
heart of God. The resolution of our sinfulness cannot come from within human
history. It can only be resolved by a Divine initiative that brings a
redemption that breaks the cycle of our sin. In Jesus, pure beauty absorbed all
that is ugly in us; pure goodness absorbed all that is evil in us; pure truth
absorbed all of our lies and rationalizations.
In the distance around him, there
are a few women keeping vigil. There are Roman centurions managing the whole
gruesome business, deciding whose legs to break to speed up the process of
death, and who to let hang a few more hours. They cast lots in the shadows of
the cross. Life goes on in all of the pedestrian banality that makes up the
routine of our existence.
contrast with the light sharpens. We had truth in our midst and we betrayed it.
We had goodness in our midst and we killed it. We had beauty in our midst and
we tortured it. What is wrong with us? What is wrong with our whole sad lot?
Why did we all shout, “Crucify him”? Why did all we would be disciples flee in
the night when they came to arrest him? Why did some of us deny that we knew
him? Why didn’t we stop this madness? What is wrong with us?
Girard has pointed out that nearly every culture in the ancient world had some
scape-goat mechanism for ridding itself of evil. In the Old Testament, there is
a reference to one of the most wide spread rituals, taking a goat and pinning
the sins of the people from the previous year on it, then driving it out of
into the wilderness, chasing it in a hunt until it dies exhausted. Many other
cultures in the ancient Near East did the same thing with a bull. Some in South
America, in Africa and in Northern Europe would sacrifice something that was
held precious to the community- perhaps a perfect bull or a perfect lamb, or a
perfect young child. The practice appears to have been nearly universal until
2500 years ago and relatively unquestioned.
says that it corresponded with a social ethic of driving scape-goating people
in society that were perceived as a threat to the order of society, especially
in times of crisis. When there was a famine in the land, an outbreak of plague,
a volcano, meteor, or hurricane, people assumed that the gods were angry with
them and they looked for someone to blame, someone to drive out of their
village in order to restore the balance and return to equanimity and peace.
in this history, Girard says that the story of Jesus in the gospels undermines
the whole ethic of scape-goating and the understanding of evil that is behind
it. He says that here, for the first time, the focus is on the suffering of the
innocent. The focus is on the injustice of the victim. He says that the whole
story undermines what was taken for granted up until that point in history. In
it’s place the story of the death of Jesus holds up a mirror for us to see
ourselves in all of our complexity and to understand that evil is not located
out there somewhere but a resident potential in each and every person. We are
at the same time caring and indifferent, loving and mean, peace filled and
violent, compassionate and jealous, giving and avaricious, hopeful and
despairing, noble and cynical.
Augustine, reflecting on the life and death of Jesus, and then on his own life
in light of Jesus, had a simple but profound insight. He said, in The
Confessions, “I have become a problem unto myself”. Another freer
translation would say “I am a living contradiction”. How many of us have had a
spouse, a loved one, a friend say “you are your own worst enemy”? I don’t need
a hand count, thank you. But we are complex, contradictory animals filled with
great promise and potential, quite capable of undermining our best work. As the
King of Siam used to say, “It is a puzzlement.” You cannot have a profound
understanding of human nature without this insight from Christianity.
few months for the past several years, we have had to deal with an episode of
gun violence at some school, somewhere in our country. These are very
disturbing and raise a number of questions about guns, about youth, about
violence. Understandably, people are asking themselves why this is happening at
a time in history when our children have so many opportunities and so much
positive nurture? People want to know why, they want something they can learn
from these tragedies. And we get these over earnest reporters plaintively asking
experts in Child psychiatry to explain it all in twenty seconds. We are given
these straws for explanations “the alleged shooter was picked on by his
friends”, “the alleged shooters parents both worked full time”, “the alleged
shooters read skin head literature”.
they show shots of a beautiful school and preface the interview with a
description of how lovely and middle class the community is, how nothing like
this has ever happened here. The implication of so many of these reports
appears to be that if we simply develop nurturing families in nice suburban
neighborhoods with organized and tolerant education, then random acts of evil
ought not to happen. It is not logical.
reminds me of the philosopher Plato. He said that if people had true
philosophical understanding about what is good for them, and they understood
why it is good for them, then they would choose what is good for them. So the
task of philosophy is to educate people as to what is good.
is nothing wrong with education. But the Christian insight about human nature
is that education is not enough. There is a contradiction at the heart of our
character. We are capable of subtle acts of evasion and profound acts of evil.
“We are a problem unto ourselves.” Or as St. Paul once put it, in a moment of
confession about his own life, “That which I ought to do, I do not do and that
which I actually do, I ought not to do.” Why is that? We are capable of great
virtue and integrity and we live out our lives in a mélange of alienation from
our highest selves.
is the sobering subject of our reflection about ourselves during Holy Week and
it is possible because we worship a God who, as Jesus taught us in the parable
of the Prodigal Son, runs down the road to greet us to see us reconciled while
we are still in the far country. We worship a God who will not let us go and
who will not leave us to our own devices, who keeps pointing us toward the path
of grace, forgiveness, integrity, hope, reconciled community, peace with each
other and with God. We worship a God who is actively about the business of
healing us even when we are in the midst of rebellion and stubborn
close with a thought from Mother Theresa, simple but important on emulating
Jesus and being like God. This is what she said.
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, People may accuse you of selfish,
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false
friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be hones and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you
It was never between you and them anyway.
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