It is the custom of empires to engage in a show of strength periodically to remind its subjects who is in control. That was particularly true in 1st CE Roman occupied Judea around the religious holiday of Passover, the celebration of liberation of the people from forces of domination and exploitation. Such a commemoration is a real liability for occupying imperial forces. Legend had it that if the Messiah was going to appear, it would be at Passover.
The medium of all public displays of imperial muscle is inevitably the use of violence. Josephus will report that the roads into Jerusalem at Passover would be lined with crucifixes, some of them still bearing the rotting corpses. Crucifixion serves many purposes, the bulk of which in an empire are propaganda:
“We are in control here. Resistance is futile. We will crush you.”
For Empires, Violence is Always the Answer.
This Holy Week is no exception. Two millennia later and two continents removed, the deadly work of empire continues.
In South Florida, crucifixion will come to a school yard. A young white man will betray his classmates, serving as the executioner of 17, spraying their bodies with bullets, terrifying those who survived, defiling the halls of the school they attended together with the weaponry of war.
He had easily and legally obtained these instruments of destruction despite his history of trouble with the law and mental instability. Exploitation in the name of greed is one of the values of all empires. In the end, the agents of empire will treat this young white man with care. By his deadly behavior, he has revealed himself as one of their own. They will take him into custody alive to face a trial that, like the role that Judas played, has a foregone conclusion.
In the empire, violence is always the answer.
Across the land in Sacramento, it will be a very different story. Here a young black man armed only with a cellphone will be executed by imperial forces in his own backyard. Like Jesus, he had done nothing to merit such treatment. And like Jesus, the body of this loving father of two would be pierced repeatedly, the life blood draining from the eight bullet wounds in his back.
Unlike Parkland’s white Angel of Death, innocent black lives really don’t matter in an empire which rose to power upon the backs of slaves.
In Washington, the young Latina woman will stand in silence for minutes on end, tears streaming down her young face. Like the women of Jerusalem who come to comfort a suffering Jesus enroute to Golgotha, she weeps for loved ones brutalized by the power of empire, untold suffering rationalized by both a civil religion serving empire as well as a religion bearing the name of Jesus that long ago lost its way.
But unlike the mysterious women of Jerusalem, about whom we know little, who simply disappear after this oblique reference in the crucifixion drama, this weeping woman will speak her pain. Almost instantly she will find herself the target of attempts to crucify her. The truth of her loss and the suffering it has extracted from her very soul is too much for the defenders of empire to bear.
Even as the sword pierces her own heart, the heartlessness of her attackers reveals itself.
Like Simon of Cyrene, whose everyday life will be interrupted by circumstances which will involve him in a macabre drama of crucifixion, the handsome young man from Parkland will desperately seek to alleviate the suffering he sees. In his rage and pain, he lashes out against the mindlessness of an empire besotted with violence. And then, like the disciples who ultimately repented of the fear that drove them from the scene of the crucifixion to lead the Way he had fostered, he, too, will become the target for crucifixion by the agents of empire.
Hell hath no fury like an empire challenged.
Across the world crucifixions in the name of empire continue unabated. They occur in places with names like Myanmar, where the practitioners of the allegedly peaceful religion of Buddhism force a 650,000 Rohingya Muslims into a deadly exile; like Syria where a quarter million residents have lost their lives caught in the middle of a deadly game played between empires; and along the Mediterranean the children fleeing war torn countries in Asia and Africa wash up on the shore.
Crucifixions did not end with Jesus, they simply transformed themselves with the times. The Kingdom of G-d which Jesus taught, modeled and ultimately died for still comforts the little ones he loved. And it still confronts those with ears to hear the questions it raises:
· Are the poor really blessed? The merciful?
· Are those who mourn comforted or do we simply add insult to injury in their time of grief?
· Are the hungry fed? Are the prisoners being set free?
· Have we learned to see the transgendered person, the Muslim, the black man in his own back yard as our neighbors? Can we even tolerate them, much less love them as ourselves?
· Do we really mean it when we pray “Your kingdom come?”
Do we have ears to hear?
Pathologies of an Inhumane Empire
The kingdom of Caesar never had trouble answering those questions. Neither does its modern counterpart. The poor are merely a factor of production exploited by an empire controlled by the 1%. The merciful are derided as naïve, bleeding hearts, snowflakes, and attempts to insure that sick people can be treated and elderly people will not be left destitute in the waning days of their lives are being actively eroded.
Its gulag archipelago of prisons swallow up one in four men of color at some point in their lifetime and a greater percentage of the total population than any other country is the world’s largest.
Across the nation the attempts
· to build walls aimed at immigrants
· to deport productive members of society including those who have served in its armed forces
· to punish those who find they cannot bear the pain of lives in an empire and turn to addictive behaviors to distract and numb themselves from their very existence
· to dehumanize and harm those who do not meet officially sanctioned socially constructed understandings of gender and sexuality
· to deride those with disabilities and those who mourn the loss of veterans who have actually served the empire
all evidence the pathologies of an inhumane empire led by an unstable, misanthropic cartoon character.
Above all, the kingdom of Caesar is not about to have its first resort to violence as a means of control challenged. Within hours of their first speaking out, the imperial media organs would launch an attack on the teenaged survivors of the Parkland shooting who had the audacity to cry out in pain against that slaughter almost before the smoke had cleared its hallways.
Who Am I in the Story?
Jesus would no doubt recognize this reality immediately. On this Holy Saturday we remember what happens to those would dare to draw into question the privileges and power of empire. The question each of us must answer is what role we play in this drama.
· Do we, like the crowd whipped into a frenzy by stimulating, provocative, but often distorted information, scream mindlessly “Crucify him!,” hoodwinked into supporting the very system that has ground our own lives into the very dust?
· Do we, like the disciples, run away from suffering, unwilling to face our own darkness, insuring that we remain distracted from this unfolding tragedy by our technological toys, determined to preserve our own comfort at all costs?
· Do we, like the women, bear witness to atrocity, enduring the sword which pierces our very souls, returning to the tomb to insure our loved ones receive a modicum of respect in death that they never got in life?
· Do we, like the Jerusalem elites, seek to protect our status and privilege, willingly allowing our own countrymen and women to be sacrificed, rationalizing our infidelity to them with self-assurances that we did it for “the people?” (translation: our continuing comfort)?
· Do we, like the Roman soldiers, simply do our job, enabling the machinery of empire to continue operating while ignoring its human costs?
Where in this story do we find ourselves?
Do we have ears to hear?
These are difficult questions to ponder this day on which the kingdom of Caesar appears victorious. On this Holy Saturday, the mutilated body of a crucified Jesus lies in a tomb. Death and the empires which trade in it would appear to have the last word.
But tomorrow is coming.
Harry Scott Coverston
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)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2018