15 April 2000

Facets of the Cross

 Here I use fiction to explore the meaning of the crucifixion by imagining the reactions of some of the witnesses. It has been read in congregations world wide.

I keep returning to this place and time. Under a darkening sky, the man hangs from a wooden stake, the intervals so long between wrenching gasps, that each one threatens to be his last.

Thus ends the career of another country bumpkin preacher. That's what they'll all say. God knows, I would have killed for him, or even died in his place. But I won't get myself or anyone else killed just to die along with him! That would be a fine thing — the leader dies, so let the led die, too.
The thing to do now is to gather the movement and get out of town until things quiet down. But how to keep the movement together without him is beyond me. Until now, I didn't realize how much a cult of personality this thing had become.

Even I thought he was practically God! Why does nothing happen? Why do the heavens not tear open and roll up like a scroll? Why does the world continue in the face of this?

Because in the final analysis, he's just a guy like any other guy. And like any other guy, he is overcome by death. God help him. God help us all.
— Peter

"You cannot crucify this man," I want to have said, "unless you crucify me with him." And maybe another would have said the same thing. And another, and so on, until the list of victims became so long and included so many influential people, that they couldn't have crucified any of us. But I was afraid no one else would join me, leaving me to sacrifice myself horribly, to no purpose. And so I left him. Only two justly condemned robbers share his misery. After him this day, they are the most innocent of us all.

"Give us Bar-Abbas!" the crowd had shouted, naming the prisoner they sought to free. As for Jesus, "Crucify him!" The voices calling to free Jesus were few, and quickly cowed into silence. How neatly we divided into those calling for his death, and those not resisting it. No, my gambit wouldn't have worked. But there is a gray zone between the persecutors — the Roman Governor, the Chief Priest and council, the angry crowd, the Roman soldiers — and the victim, Jesus. And I am in it — made less human because I did not stand up for what makes me human.

I stand with others like myself, and Peter, alternately a bully and a coward, who wounded the priest's slave when Jesus was arrested, and then lied about even knowing Jesus when someone asked him. But I can take no comfort from that. I am responsible for my own inaction. I want to feel that I am better than Judas, the betrayer. But without unresisting people like me, corrupted by our simple desire to survive, his betrayal would not have brought Jesus to this.
— Joseph of Arimithea
The man is guilty, so they say. If he is not God, he is guilty of making pronouncements that only God can make. If he is God, he is guilty of leaving his people oppressed by foreigners. If he were God, he would have changed all that by his coming. If he is God, what is he doing on this cross? So they say.
Life is hard, and death takes those we love until it comes for us. And our politics is like chicken soup — the scum rises to the top. If it is not God's will, then God is not omnipotent. If it is God's will, then God is not good. If this man is God, then maybe he is paying the price for our lives being so hard. Maybe this is God's way of being sorry for kicking us out of Paradise.
May God have mercy on this man, and finish him off quickly. May God have mercy on my soul.
— Anonymous bystander
It was perfectly democratic. The people were given their choice between this man and the other. They chose this one for death and the other for life. I did no more than their bidding. My hands are clean.

Both men were leading movements inimical to the peace, and opposed to civil society as we know it. Lest we be deemed to be too harsh in suppressing such uprisings before they reach the full flower of violence, we have developed the custom of setting one of their leaders free each year during their holiday. This year it was going to be the other man anyway, until this one came along. He seemed to me a dreamer, rather than a man of action. I would have preferred freeing him rather than the one the people wanted, because he seemed to me to be the lesser threat. The people must have thought so too, and in their perversity, seeking to undermine the civilization that gives them so much, they chose to have the more dangerous fellow released.

The people have spoken, and in Roman magnanimity I carried out their choice. May the powers protect us from the fellow I freed.
— Pontius Pilate, Roman Prefect of Judea
 I had no choice. We are facing extermination as a people. Only purity and unity of belief can keep us together. Yet this man tried to pollute our belief with subtle, seductive, but false teachings. Moreover, he undermined the authorities arrayed against us so publicly, that if we tolerated him, he would have brought their violence down upon us all.

No, it is better that this one man die, than the whole nation should perish. I would like to have protected him, but I had to think of all the people for which I am responsible. The essence of leadership is decision.

Besides, the whole council concurred with me. If I had been in error, surely someone would have dissented. And in any case, I had no choice.
— Caiaphas, Head Priest
He had it coming to him. He alienated everyone who could have helped him. You know, sometimes to get along, you have to go along. Telling people to their face that they committing the moral equivalent of adultery by merely looking at a pretty girl, or getting a divorce; telling honest people trying to make a living by changing profane money for sacred money that may be offered within the temple precincts that they are thieves; telling the priestly classes that they are children of hell — none of these is likely to win a man friends.

He goaded the powers that be until they got him. And he knew they would get him. He had it coming.
— Saul of Tarsus, Pharisee
 I never thought they would kill him. I only thought they would rough him up, and talk some sense into him. After all, he and his followers roughed people up in the temple courtyard to drive home his teachings. Most of his teachings are fine, but some of his teachings are wrong — he stresses individual morality and an individual relationship with God. But ever since Moses, we have recognized a communal relationship with God, with our community built upon our individual relations with one another. Therefore God gave us the Law, to guide us in our dealings with each other, and in our worship, so that we can continue to be the People of God. Because if we stop being the People of God, we will be no people at all, like the Lost Tribes.

I never meant to betray him, not like this.
— Judas Iscariot
 This man maintained that he himself was the truth. The priests claim they have the truth. My Roman masters claim their way is the true way. It is pretty clear that the truth is whatever some group claims it to be, or whatever some person can convince some group that it is.

What is the truth? There is no truth. There is just existence, and our groping our way through it until we, like this man, cease to exist. He thought he was the truth, with a capital T, like so many other demagogues, some benign, some murderous. Anyone so convinced of their own rightness can't be trusted with real power, and this man was becoming powerful, at least with the mob.

It's a bad end. But what else could have happened? This man fell afoul of the restoring forces that maintain stability in societies. That's all.
— Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judea
He saved my life. They were going to beat me with stones right in the public square because they had found me with a man I did not know was already married. And he stopped them with just a few words.

"Let one among you who is without sin cast the first stone at her," he said. And the angry mob melted away.

Why can he not do that now? What evil is this that stops his mouth so that he cannot speak? That stops my mouth so that I cannot cry, "He saved my life?"
— Mary Magdalen
 Lately, I've begun to hate watching them die so slowly. It's bad enough to set 'em up — ye gods how they scream when you put a nail through each wrist and and the long one through both heels! But then you have to watch while the pain builds up everywhere — arms, legs, chest. Eventually they suffocate because they can't breathe like that after they finally pass out. After doing so many, you'd think I'd get used to it, but it gets worse each time. If it were up to me, I'd cut off their heads, like we do to condemned citizens.

This guy was a rabble-rouser, those two were robbers. It's all the same — barbarian troublemakers disturbing the gods' peace. If we didn't kill 'em as we catch 'em, they would eventually start new provincial wars, and then we would end up killin' way more people than these few. But I wish that it didn't take so long. You know, just get things over with. One justice for all, citizen and barbarian alike. It's too progressive for these times, I'd say, but someday it will happen. You wait and see.
— A Roman Soldier

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