John 18:1 – 19:42
Lopping trees was a daily task my father did to feed his sheep. He didn’t use grain but used the resources of the box, mountain oak or kurrajong to sustain his stock through hard times, or to simply augment their diet. Nature provided all he needed to care for his stock.
He would swing the axe into the tree climb up, take the axe and repeat the process until he was where he wanted to be. When he was in the right place, where the best branches were he would begin to cut sufficient only to feed the sheep below.
One day he approached a large box tree, two fulsome cuddles round. Strong and powerful in appearance and full of good branches. He swung the axe sideways into the trunk and the tree gave forth a menacing sigh and cam crashing down at his feet. With one blow of the axe, what appeared to be strong and able to live forever, crashed in a heap on the ground.
A closer inspection showed it was rotten at the core just waiting for the right incentive to give up the ghost. Fortunately his faithful dog and horse were not underneath it when it cam down.
Good Friday is the day the human project of violence, power and oppression came crashing down. In a few short hours, from dawn till mid afternoon, what had looked invincible fell to the power of obedience and compassion in the life and death of Christ. Death, a synonym for a life violently opposed to a relationship with God, lost it’s battle when Jesus was prepared to live his life to the full, even unto an unjust and cruel death on the cross.
Jesus did not avoid the consequences of compassion for all of creation, the consequences for calling out injustice and the machinery of death, be that in the shape of the military economy in power in Jerusalem, or the politically greedy who were manipulating the system for their own wealth and power or the religious leaders who were benefiting from the conflict in the system.
Jesus subsumed the violence into his own experience and shared the experience of all those who had been crucified before him for daring to challenge Rome or simply been caught for the crime of survival. Jesus took into himself the violence that was present in those watching and calling for his death. He understood human beings as having the capacity for great violence and heard it, felt and died from it.
For the more, the most challenging part of this story is the crowd, ordinary citizens of the city, mums and dads, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, adults and children, all calling for Jesus to be crucified. They were loving to their families, caring for their neighbours, observant of religious rules and rituals. They were active community members and would have been seen, in other places, as good people.
Yet here they are, calling for the physical destruction of a fellow Jew, a man who had done so much good and had spoken up for them. They wished him a violent death.
It is not sufficient to say it was mob think, peer pressure or the manipulation of the crowd by those in power. These were sane, thinking people, people able to manage their own decisions and emotions, how come they gave it up so easily to resort to violence? These were sane people.
Perhaps this is the scary bit. We understand ourselves to be sane and deny our propensity for violence. In fact we deny even the possibility that we too can resort to violence so powerful it crucifies others. Our decisions, words, actions, ideologies are well thought out and sane. There is no way how we think or act is capable of the same violence as the Romans, the crowd, the Nazis or ISIS. Yet..
Thomas Merton explored the case of Adolf Eichmann, the leader of the Gestapo who led millions to their death. Merton writes:
One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. I do not doubt it all, and that is precisely why I find it disturbing.
If all the Nazis had been psychotics, as some of their leaders probably were, their appalling cruelty would have been in some sense easier to understand. It is much worse to consider this calm, “well-balanced,” unperturbed official conscientiously going about his desk work, his administrative job which happened to be the supervision of mass murder. He was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state. He served his government very well.
You may say this was an extreme case. Is it? The recent declaration of imprisonment for those who protest the use of their land for CSG and coal mining by the NSW Government, the treatment of children in detention, the increased spending on weapons of destruction for our military, the destruction of the environment for coal power and more, speaks to our willingness to use violence as and when it is necessary.
The increase of bullying, domestic violence, street violence, gun violence, road rage speaks to the level of violence sitting just below the surface in many of us. AN hour in front of the tv at news time will have us locking every window and door and arming ourselves to protect what is ours! The language of politics, brought into sharp focus by the US elections, but not restricted to that country reminds us the capacity other wise sane people seem to have for violence.
Merton goes on:
The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous……….
The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless. A man can be “sane” in the limited sense that he is not impeded by disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly tier, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly “adjusted.” God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself.
The challenge for you and I this Easter is to face the violence within ourselves, to open Pandoras box and take a good long look what is lurking within. It is a dangerous thing to do for we may be forced to realise that the violence in the world also has its home in us, our language, our expectations, our ideologies, our demands.
Good Friday is the result of sane people taking sane decisions and enticing good people to follow them. The outcome? The horrific death of the only truly good man. Are we the sane people participating in similar decisions and actions which condemn innocent people to a lifetime in detention centres, to be caught in inhumane living conditions and to be brutalised for our supposed safety?
Our does Jesus death save us? It saves us from the illusion of innocence and, if we are willing, wrests the power of violence from us so that we truly can live a non-violent life of obedience and compassion, just as Jesus did. Amen