Monday, March 28, 2016

Everyday Crucifixions

The crucifixion of Jesus has long been a powerful symbol. I knew early on that I must have a catholic soul when I began to notice that the empty crosses I saw in Protestant churches like my own Methodist Church had little impact on me even as the crucifixes of liturgical traditions touched something very deep within me. As I have had the chance to visit sacred sites around the world, the wide range of depictions of Jesus’ final moments on the cross have become a part of my very soul.

No doubt that is in part an expression of the Franciscan in me who processes his religion in an incarnational fashion, often experiencing the divine by means of experience of the good Creation. The Jesus on the crucifix is a real live human being, just like me. He suffers and dies, just as all of us will. This is a figure I can relate to.

The empty cross seems to evidence a desire a compulsion to sanitize this messy event, ignoring its roots in an inhumanity of which all of us are capable, and fast forwarding to the resurrection. The focus appears to be on the happy ending to the story where all of us who got the theology right get to go to Heaven and walk streets of gold.


In all honesty, the many attempts to explain away the torture and execution of Jesus by the Romans, reducing it to a manageable and self-serving theological formula, always have struck me as tenuous at best. The god constructed by theologians like Augustine and Anselm who cannot forgive human sin without human sacrifice is simply not a god worth taking seriously, much less worshipping. Peter Abelard gets a little closer with his model in which Jesus willingly dies at the hands of the Romans to serve as the example of the self-sacrificial love of G-d for humanity. But even in that construct, there is a sense that human beings are incapable of repentance from their tendencies to crucify the other without some kind of lethal jolt.

Why would that be?

I think it is only when one takes seriously what Jesus has to say about the suffering of the anawim, the little ones that Jesus loved, that crucifixions make any sense at all. Jesus did not need the Romans to teach him what it meant to be crucified. He knew it only too well. He saw it every day in the suffering of the poor he loved, the ones he fed, healed and reminded that G-d’s blessing began with them.

Jesus recognized that crucifixions happen every day. They are ordinary events in a world where the power, wealth and status are the media used in exchanges in which the powerless, the working poor and those at the bottom of artificial, socially constructed hierarchies are inevitably the losers. In many ways, our world is not terribly different from the world in which Jesus lived.

Truth be told, very few people knew or cared about the crucifixion of one Jesus of Nazareth on the day his followers now call Good Friday. There was no mass media in 1st CE Roman Palestine. Jesus’ crucifixion did not make the six o’clock news. The name Yeshua was a common name among Judean boys. Messiahs were a dime a dozen in Roman occupied Judea and none had ever succeeded in liberating the Jewish people.

While it is possible for Christians today to look back through the wrong end of the telescope and see Jesus’ execution by the Romans as a world changing event if not a theological epiphany, the reality on the ground is that this event was simply one more day like the others in Roman Palestine. Jesus died in an everyday crucifixion.

Matthias Grunewald,  Isenheim Altarpiece

Crucifixion is a potent symbol for me because I, too, have witnessed many everyday crucifixions. Little ones, unable to protect themselves against much stronger antagonists and irrational mobs, often find themselves in untenable positions. Sometimes the crucified get away with merely being humiliated, a psychic scar added to many others already borne. Sometimes the crucified endure actual physical harm and count themselves lucky to live to tell about it. Others prove not so fortunate, their disfigured corpses the grim reminders of what crucifixion becomes in the hands of men emboldened by their power but frightened by their own shadows.

Here are just a few of their stories that I have had the occasion to experience.

The teachers came up to the covered walkway outside my second grade classroom where I sat waiting for the bell to ring. “You need to come with us,” they said.

There had been a hurricane in our part of Florida just the month before and a canal had been dredged through our playground to drain off flood waters. We headed out to the canal. Amidst a gang of laughing, shouting boys stood a lone little boy in the white oxford shirt and khaki pants his mother had so carefully washed and ironed the day before. He was angry, crying. And he was covered with black mud that stood out in stark contrast to starched clothing he wore.

This little boy had been born with a speech impediment, a partial cleft palate, which rendered his speech very nasal and difficult to understand. The boys had been making fun of his impediment that morning, imitating him and calling him names. When he had had enough of their abuse he laid into them with his fists. They had thrown him to the ground, pounded him and finally picked him up and tossed him into the muddy canal. He had come out of the canal sputtering, covered with mud, angry and crying.

I looked at the angry, sputtering boy. He was my little brother.

“Take him over to your father,” they said. And so the two of us headed across the street to the high school where my father taught. We would take him home, change his clothes and return to school as if nothing had ever happened. But as we walked in silence over to find our father that morning, I found myself unable to believe what had just happened. What kind of human beings would do such a thing to a kid like this?

Crucifixions are the acts of bullies and cowards. Driven by an already low level of consciousness, group think inevitably tends to devolve to the lowest common denominator. Because the mediocrity of the common can never be drawn into consciousness, much less into question, it is precisely in these moments of low consciousness that the worst atrocities can occur.

The locker rooms at our junior-senior high school were like scenes out of a medieval dungeon. Dirty, mold growing on the walls, pipes exposed, some long since cut off and removed leaving chards of corroded metal sticking out of the poured concrete floor to rip one’s foot open, the inevitably foul smelling locker room was the place this seventh grader wanted to avoid at all costs. The sexually charged atmosphere in which muscular farm boys proudly displayed their fully developed genitals to shy, na├»ve boys just out of elementary school always made time in the showers an endurance contest.

Our school had only recently desegregated. One of the new students was an African-American eighth grader who was mildly mentally handicapped though physically well developed. G-d has been particularly good to him in the genitals department, something that hardly escaped the attention of his white farm boy classmates.

I looked up one day to hear shouting, laughing and screaming. The young black student was in the corner of the shower, a knot of white assailants pelting him with wet toilet paper and popping him with towels. I will never forget the look of terror on that boy’s face as a deluge of toilet paper wads and wet towels descended upon him.

At one point the target of their abuse grabbed a shower head and began squirting the other boys with hot water. They retreated. But in the process, water squirted up to the ceiling onto the exposed light bulbs far over our heads and blew them out.

At exactly that moment, the coach’s door opened. “Who did this?” he asked. Everyone pointed to the young black student. No one told the coach how that had happened nor did he seem to care. To this day I regret keeping my mouth closed, afraid I’d be blamed, too, if I told the truth or worse yet, the next candidate for shower room torture. The coach ordered the black student to put his clothes on and off they went to the office. By the end of the day we heard the kid was suspended.

Marion, Indiana (1930) 

Everyday crucifixions happen when power is abused and there is no one willing to confront power with truth. Sometimes, even truth telling cannot prevent crucifixion.

 Martin was one of the severely emotionally disturbed students I taught at Middle Six, the former black elementary school turned sixth grade center in Vero Beach in the late 1970s. I was one of a handful of white teachers in the predominately black school. With an IQ of 60, Martin was a challenge in class with a quick temper and a lack of social skills that led to stunts like peeing on the Encyclopedia Britannica in the library one day.

But what he lacked in intelligence and social skills, he made up for in his amiable nature. Martin had the ability to completely swallow up my shoulder with his mouth and I would know he was at school every morning when I’d feel his teeth gently grasping my shoulder. “Good morning, Martin,” I’d say, “Don’t bite me.” And Martin would grin. He had long since figured out that his teacher dearly loved him.
Just before I left teaching to attend law school, I took the boys out one day for an impromptu sex ed lesson. Some of them had made some inappropriate comments to the only female student in our class of 8 and so I went through all the common descriptions of sexual acts and gave them the anatomical and clinical terms for them. When we got to anal intercourse, Martin erupted: “That’s what my brother been doing to me and next time he does it, I’m gonna pick up a butcher knife and stab him.”

To her credit, Martin’s mother did attend the parent conference I called the next day. But when I told her what Martin had said, she shut completely down. “Is Martin in trouble at school?” she asked. No, I said, he was actually doing pretty well. “Then we’re finished here,” she said and got up and abruptly walked out of the classroom.

When I came home from law school after my first semester, I got together with some of my old teacher friends for dinner. As I asked about my former students and my replacement’s attempts to deal with them, I noticed that no one was talking about Martin. “So, how is Martin?” I asked.

I could tell immediately that the news was bad. “You don’t know, do you?” my friend said, “He is in prison. He stabbed his brother to death in his sleep.”

Poverty and the degradation that it produces are very effective means of crucifixion. Indeed, in most of the world, they are the norm rather than the exception. But sometimes everyday crucifixions can occur in the lives of the relatively privileged as well.

By my second year of teaching, enduring the homophobic epithets in the little town where I taught seventh grade language arts and social studies had become a constant liability. I incurred them everywhere, even the grocery store as I shopped for food for my animals and the large jugs of cheap Cribari wine that helped keep me numb in the face of this completely unanticipated onslaught. Rumor had it Mr. Coverston survived on a diet of dog food and wine.

I had fled from the little town to the country that second year of teaching hoping to find some peace of mind away from the middle school where I had come as a new teacher, fresh out of college and ready to save the world. But the tiny rural world in which I had landed absolutely did not want their kids to become critical thinkers and the world as they saw it needed no salvation. When they ran my best friend out of town mid school year because she was lesbian, I knew I was in trouble.

The Friday night party with friends was in full swing when the phone rang. “Is that a gay party you’re having?” the caller asked, voice dripping with acid. “We’re going to get you“ the caller continued. I hung up and refused to pick it up when my tormentor called back repeatedly, finally taking the phone off the hook. But the mood of the party was broken.

It was that moment that we noticed the pickup truck stopped in front of my little house in the country, lights out, cigarettes glowing in the dark, the silhouette of the barrels of rifles sticking out of the windows visible against the full moon. The music and the lights were immediately extinguished in my house and my guests huddled fearfully on the floor in the dark for several minutes until the truck pulled away.

Long after my friends had deserted me that night, I sat in the dark, rocking back and forth in fetal position, softly sobbing and repeating, “It’s never going to get any better.” And had my father not come to load up my things and move me out later that year, I probably would not have survived to tell this story.

Douglas Blanchard, "Station 11: Jesus Before the Soldiers," 

Passion of the Christ - A Gay Vision (2014)

Ugly prejudices are particularly effective instruments of crucifixion. They strip away their target’s humanity before nailing their souls to crosses of degradation. It’s always easier to hurt those who are not seen as fully human. And it’s a short leap from hurling ugly words to nailing hands and feet to crosses of wood.

Sometimes the victims internalize those words first and actually come to believe they somehow deserve the abuse they receive. But not always. Sometimes the victims prove unwilling to go along voluntarily with their crucifixion.

The base community was one of several we visited that day in the countryside of El Salvador. The fragile cease fire was maintained by blue shirted UN troops and the road along the way had been marked by signs warning of mines. The community was located in a former cattle farm owned by one of the famous Fourteen Families of El Salvador. The long barn had once housed Charolaise, beautiful white cows imported from France, who immediately developed skin problems from the tropical climate and its bugs and thus had to be housed in air conditioned stalls.

Campesinos had overrun the farm and now lived in the cattle stalls. “You may think we’re animals because we live in these barns,” the leader of the community said, “But this is the first roof I’ve ever had over my head.” Where had he lived, we asked. “Under the bridge.” He pointed to the wooden bridge we’d just come across to enter the farm.

About that moment several children came up around us, their bellies distended by malnutrition. “Two children in our community died last week, the oldest was 10. He was my son.”

A long, painful silence enshrouded the group of us. This base community had risen up to take over a beef farm because they had been pushed off their land by the large agribusinesses which have taken over much of the Central America. Over and over the peoples had told us they simply wanted three things: access to education for their children, to medical care and the ability to farm their own land and market their goods through cooperatives. The US backed right wing government had responded to their unwillingness to stay in their places of crucifixion with the brutal power of the military by day and their paramilitaries who rained down terror and disappearances at night.

Within 24 hours I would be back in the Bay area to begin my next semester at seminary. Some parishioners picked me up at Oakland International and took me to lunch. It was a Sizzler. In the middle of the restaurant was an enormous food bar running over with food. I thought of the people I had just met who were literally starving to death and looked at the food bar. Most of this would be thrown away within hours uneaten.

There are many forces that drive everyday crucifixions. But all of them hold one thing in common: they begin with the refusal to recognize the humanity of those they end up abusing. That is why the cross of Jesus speaks to so many of us. It is the medium of a history that extends long before and far beyond the confines of 1st CE Palestine.

It was the end of my two week Spanish immersion program in Cuernavaca. I had come on a shoestring and now I was completely out of money with a day left to go. I was feeling incredibly sorry for myself. Here I was in the middle of a foreign country on this ill-conceived calling to become a priest, no diocesan sponsorship, no guarantees of anything. I was confused, tired and just a little frightened. And now I was broke.

As I walked down the street to my host’s house, I noticed a small church to my right. It was a Franciscan church and the gate was open. I decided to go in and pray.

The wooden kneelers were uncomfortable. I softly wept, asking G_d why I was there, what this was about, why had He abandoned me. A gentle voice in my head said, “Look up.” And when I did I noticed for the first time that the Jesus on the cross there was indigenous. Suddenly two weeks of local history of Cortez’s brutal conquest of this area, dramatically illustrated by Diego Rivera’s mural on the rear wall of Cortez’s castle, came swimming into focus. These people had, indeed, been crucified.

Who was I to feel sorry for myself? I could feel my face flush with embarrassment, got up from my pew, uttered a word of thanks to G-d for a lesson delivered at the visceral level and left, making the sign of the crucifixion on my own body with holy water as I departed through the front door.

While I do not find explanations of Jesus’ crucifixion in which he dies for humanity’s sins compelling, it is beyond question that Jesus died because of human sin. The sin that manifest itself in Jesus’ execution hardly ended on Good Friday. Indeed, Jesus continues to be crucified every single day in the lives of the little ones he loved.

The crucifix reminds us of the lives of these little ones among us. It demands that we become conscious of their lives as well as our own. It invites our solidarity with them in their suffering and our willingness to do what we can to alleviate, end and prevent the cause of that suffering. The ultimate power of the crucifix is its ability to pose the troubling question of what roles we play in the everyday crucifixions we encounter.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)



Anonymous said...

Realistic description of what you went through. In reality, we are all challenged by our selfish desire instead of being able to wish the best possible good for the other.

MK said...

Harry, this is an amazing piece, moving through time and escalating horror in such a deft way, I was borne along even when I wanted to close my eyes and stop reading. My sister was a teacher for kids like Martin, and I experienced the shame of not defending a mentally handicapped person; my great aunt was institutionalized for having a cleft palate. I grew up in the Florida you describe. Thank you.
Mary K, (from dream group)