"Love is a harsh and dreadful thing to ask of us, but it is the only answer."--Dorothy Day


Were You There?


I am vehemently opposed to the death penalty. When I was in college I worked for The Daily Texan, the UT newspaper, as a copyeditor. This meant that I had to stay to the bitter end to check the final proofs of the newspaper. In Texas the death penalty is a huge deal. They kill more people than many states combined. One night in particular, there was an execution scheduled--the execution of a man named Gary Graham. I spent the whole night, about 8 hours total, watching this story unfold and reading about it over and over and over again. If anyone with any respect for human life had been involved in Texas government, that execution would have been stayed. But we had no one. Evidence was entirely circumstantial, and much of it had been called into question during the 17 years this man had been awaiting his execution. But they still saw fit to end his life. Since that night it has been one of my major issues.

Growing up in the Church of Christ, and I think this is true of many Christian denominations, I was taught that being a baptized, forgiven believer gave me a role in the Crucifixion. That role was that of a member of the jeering crowds. This bothers me a great deal. I think about myself transported to the time of Jesus' life. I am in Jerusalem during what is now considered Holy Week. I witness Jesus riding into town on the back of a colt and wave palm fronds to welcome my King. I hear about this amazing man, who has done and said amazing and unbelievable things. And then I hear that he has been arrested and will be killed in the morning. My friends and neighbors are intrigued, and uninvested, and go to the town square to see the events unfold. We are given the chance to set him free. But instead we loose a criminal. And we leave this man to die. I cannot imagine my transported self being there and not being mortified at what is transpiring before me.

I know that this is the easy way out. No one wants to feel that they are responsible for the Crucifixion. But my feeling is that we were all there, and we were all delivered by this unselfish act, but maybe there's a possibility that we were not part of the jeering crowds. Maybe I was Veronica, who met Jesus on the road as he carried the cross and wiped his brow. Or Mary Magdelene, distraught at the loss of her dear friend and teacher, in no way able to grasp the greater things at hand. Or Pontious Pilot, struggling with the fact that he could have done something to stop this, but instead bowed to the will of the crowd.


RM said...

I never knew that this was the C.of C. view. But then again, I have never been fully integrated into C. of C. culture. But one should hope that you are right, and we wouldn't be part of the jeering crowd, but would have been more compassionate.

JTB said...

I think it's so important to keep the violence of the crucufixion in mind in just this way. It's not something to be celebrated (an attitude I can't help but feel we slip into in those college devos where every aspect of Jesus' physical agony is dwelt on in loving detail). It remains something to be abhorred and something that is deeply problematic theologically. Do we want to be saved through such a thing as this? The answer should be no, I think. Otherwise we enshrine violence as the heart of our Christianity. We need to be able to reject that. We need to recognize that human beings are capable of the senseless violence depicted in the crucifixion, and we also need to be able to say, this is not me; maybe it could've been, but it isn't who I am now.