I’ve thought about the fact that Jesus was a victim of the death penalty many times, but this year I experienced something different. During the Good Friday service at St. Stephen’s, the choir sang a beautiful Taizé chant, “Crucem Tuam,” and then we all joined in singing a couple other hymns. Valentin walked around with a primitive-looking crucifix made with rope, screws and branches. It was time to venerate the cross. I was suddenly overcome by emotion. I could not stop tears from rolling down my face. I wanted nothing to do with this ritual.
My mind went back to the terrible night when almost a thousand of us stood outside Georgia’s maximum security prison to protest the impending execution of Troy Davis and the dozens of times I stood with far fewer numbers of people to protest the executions of many other prisoners. Many of those nights, we stood in a meditative circle along with family members of the person about to be killed by medical professionals and technicians hired by the state.
It is a very strange and terrible experience to bear witness, to pray, to sing, to stand peacefully in silence, surrounded by guards who are mundanely doing their jobs. I often imagined the sterile execution chamber that looks like a hospital room, except no one is put there to be healed. It is strange and terrible to know that a horrible act will be carried out in your name and under the guise of justice and civility to right the wrong of a killing. It is terrible to stand in solemnity when it feels more appropriate to scream, shout and insist with every fiber in your being that the calculated homicide be stopped.
Perhaps I was disturbed in the Holy Week service because I felt we were not disturbed by this symbol of state violence. Perhaps we’re not able to connect with what the cross really is all these centuries after Jesus’ execution. What would it be like to have someone walk around the sanctuary holding out a syringe full of poison for people to touch, to kiss or bow to? How could anyone feel comfortable doing that? Would people feel too repulsed to venerate such an object?
I think we’ve got it all wrong in having the cross be the central symbol of Christianity. This execution devise represents the most serious power ceded to government, the power over life. It is in direct contradiction of human rights and the very heart of God’s nature. God sent Jesus, a human model, to show us how to experience and live out his ethic of love and grace. In the face of evil, he modeled redemption and a restorative justice, burying a primitive and destructive philosophy of a vengeful justice. To me, the cross symbolizes humanity’s attempt to sabotage that ethic, but not that ethic itself.
Jesus died for our sins? Did he? That ties up the story of the worst act committed by humanity too neatly for me. I believe Jesus lived for the benefit of our souls and to enrich our lives on earth and beyond. But his message of how to live from the spirit of God’s transformative love was too radical. It demands we orient our thinking and our behaviors to question injustice and suffering and treat all people, even those beyond our own tribal group, as sisters and brothers. His message contradicted the status quo and started to attract followers. It was so threatening to the power of the religious elite and state government that he would not be tolerated.
The death penalty has always been about control. Control over slaves, hung for trying to escape or stage rebellions, control over those who would dare to kill white people or those in positions of authority, control over communities of color as part of a larger criminal justice system that controls the lives of a huge number of the poor and people of color in many ways, reserving the power even over their lives.
I have heard others view of the cross and what folks bring to the ritual of its veneration. I am not ready to go there, but maybe that viewpoint will evolve. For now, though, I would like for the cross to be brought in ceremoniously on Good Friday for congregants to dismantle and reconstruct as something beautiful for even useful. Perhaps we could lay out a set of tools, hammers, saws, crowbars, paint and anything else that stirs our creativity. I don’t mind remembering the cross and what humanity did to Jesus. But I want to be clear that we remember it because we must remember that God is calling us to a radical vision of love that often crosses the authority of those in power. He was willing to cross that line; therefore, we must be willing to as well. I think it is right for Christians to connect with the suffering of Christ, but I am deeply uncomfortable with the Mel Gibson gore-fest way of doing it. I am uncomfortable connecting with the passion as a way to feel deeply horrible about having a rotten nature or to motivate Christians to feel like superior truth holders who must “save” the world. I am comfortable having Jesus’ suffering in my understanding of God; but, I want it to be connected to the central focus of God’s vision and commandment to live a life rooted in a radical and life affirming ethic of love. For me, the message of Easter is that evil did not and still does not hold more power than God’s indestructable love.
I know that Holy Week usually stirs powerful experiences. Perhaps you have a different view of the cross. Perhaps other services struck you deeply. I hope you will add to the comments below to create a rich discussion!