“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The old, familiar spiritual that we will sing again in a few minutes has taken on new meaning for me in this season. A few weeks ago, as I was preparing for one of the sessions in our Lenten Study on the meaning of the cross in the twenty-first century, I came across a movie of lynching postcards compiled and narrated by James Allen. By themselves, the images are haunting and horrific. They depict the gaunt, celebratory faces of white people surrounding black bodies hanging from trees.
One of the most memorable is a woman who hangs from a long bridge over a wide river. It’s a shot from the distance, so the frame is dominated by the lengthy bridge and the river. The only verticality breaking those lines is the woman’s body. Above her, on the bridge, stand members of the lynching mob. From the distance they look like soldiers standing guard.
These images continue to haunt me. It’s not just that they are a powerful reminder of the history of racism, slavery, and Jim Crow and all of the ways in which American prosperity and culture have been shaped by that history. It’s also the emotions on display in many of the photos, and the uses made of those photos as postcards. But in the end, what may be most gut-wrenching about them is the way in which the lynched bodies resemble artistic images of Jesus’ crucifixion. Since seeing the movie of those postcards, I’ve not been able to look at an image of the crucifixion without seeing also images of black bodies hanging from trees or bridges.
Some of you may be feeling uncomfortable right now, perhaps even a little angry, that I am bringing up this images, this history, racism, on Good Friday when our focus is on the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I do it because as powerful and wrenching as our liturgy and devotions, our hymnody, the reading of the passion gospel of John, as powerful, emotional, dramatic as it all is, our tradition has deflected our attention away from the systemic issues that led to the crucifixion to focus with laser intensity on our personal, individual connection with the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
I don’t want to dismiss or deny such individual connection, our contribution to Jesus’ suffering, but I would like us to think of it in a slightly different way. The cross was the symbol of Roman power and oppression, a reminder to all of the terror by which Rome maintained its power. Jesus’ life and ministry brought him up against Roman tyranny and power, and finally Rome had enough.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? The questions asked by this spiritual invite us to imagine ourselves in the scenes. But they also invite us to interrogate ourselves, to ask about our presence, our participation, our complicity. Are we witnesses, standing near the cross as in John’s depiction of the crucifixion, or further away, like the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee, as Mark and Matthew tell it? Are we among the crowd, who shout “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Are we soldiers, overseeing and conducting his execution? Are we privileged citizens of Rome who benefit immeasurably from Rome’s wealth and power, accustomed to Rome’s bloodthirsty spectacles and seeing crucifixions in that light?
To reflect faithfully on the crucifixion in twenty-first century America demands that we ask another set of questions. Racism persists; it is reflected in inequality and mass incarceration. State violence persists—the state of Arkansas is planning the execution of seven men in the next two weeks. The US military deployed the most powerful bomb in its arsenal yesterday—will we ever learn how many civilians it killed? We may be closer to nuclear war today than at any point since the end of the Cold War; and gas attacks against civilians in Syria unleashed a wave of missile attacks.
To reflect faithfully on the crucifixion on this Good Friday demands that we see the suffering of Christ wherever there is human suffering, and especially where that human suffering is the product of human evil and depravity, caused by war and oppression. Faithful reflection on the crucifixion demands that we confess our complicity in that violence and oppression.
`To reflect faithfully on the crucifixion as 21st century American Christians also requires that we acknowledge and confess all of the ways in which the story of the crucifixion, especially the passion narrative of the Gospel of John, which we heard today and hear read every Good Friday has contributed to anti-semitism. John’s gospel deflects attention away from Rome, its local authority Pilate, and the roman military. John places the blame for Jesus’ arrest and execution on the “Jews” which is an undifferentiated mass of those who hate Jesus from the religious elite down to ordinary residents of Jerusalem. The legacy of John’s depiction has echoed throughout the centuries, contributing not only to common stereotypes of Jews throughout Western culture, but also to outbreaks of violence. In an era when anti-semitism is again on the rise, it is important for us to acknowledge Christianity’s long history of anti-Jewish theology, devotion, and actions.
“Were you there when we crucified my Lord?” There is yet another way in which we can reflect on and respond to this question. Beyond confessing our complicity we can bear witness to and proclaim the presence of God in the midst of human suffering, to see Christ crucified in the victims of terror, violence, and war. In those places and moments: in the victim of a gas attack, in a school teacher killed by her estranged husband, in refugees fleeing war, Christ is crucified by the evil and indifference of human hearts.
Our presence here today commemorates the crucifixion. We reflect on our own sins and on the sins of the world. We must do more. We must also bear witness to Christ’s presence among us, in the world. We must proclaim and bear witness to Christ’s continuing suffering, Christ’s continuing crucifixion in the suffering of the world, in war, violence, oppression, and racism. We must bear witness and proclaim the love of Christ that brought him to the cross, to the love of Christ that seeks to reconcile humans to each other, and all of us to God. We must experience and proclaim the love of Christ lifted high on the cross, drawing all of humankind to himself. On this day, and throughout our lives, may we experience and share that love.