xbn .
The Politics of Scripture

The Healing Power of Memory

It is only in the memories of Jesus the fully human that we can find what I argue is the greatest power of the Passion for human lives held captive by the oppressive forces of Empire: the strength to face our crippling fear, stare the full oppressive might of the state in the face, and refuse to cede our full humanity – our joy, love, compassion, and hope – in service to the state’s liturgies of violence and fear.

Jesus Before Pilate
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ 3Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ 5But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Pilate Hands Jesus over to Be Crucified
6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ 10For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ 13They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ 14Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ 15So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

The Soldiers Mock Jesus
16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. 17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

The Crucifixion of Jesus
21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ 27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. 29Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

The Death of Jesus
33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

The Burial of Jesus
42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. 45When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. 46Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

Mark 15:1-47

The trial, torture, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, son of Joseph, is the one of the foundational memories upon which Christianity rests. This memory is a trauma, a wound that cuts across the very fabric of Christian self-understanding and thought. This event is both the cornerstone of Christian identity and its thorniest challenge: it is simply impossible to engage with any aspect of Jesus Christ without first wrestling with the implications of this event, and the indelible mark it seared into Christian memory.

This event, traditionally referred to as “the Passion,” is akin to a black hole, whose gravitational field is so monstrously overwhelming that it ensnares and inexorably draws everything into its grasp, transforming the very structure of time itself. It is truly one of those exceedingly rare events which can be said to be completely safe from overstatement or hyperbole, despite my apparent efforts so far. In this, the Passion is an invaluable tool for considering the power, and role, of memory in shaping human frameworks of time and meaning. The story not only lays bare the constituent elements of the liturgy of violence that states (both ancient and modern) use to enforce their power, it also teaches us valuable lessons in the ways that memory can oppress, empower, highlight, and obscure. 

It is somewhat fortuitous, therefore, that this piece of Christian scripture presents itself at this particular moment of global memory, when the world is wrestling with the twin crises of a global pandemic and structural racism; these crises could actually be said to be inextricably linked to the deeper wound of colonial systems of economic injustice, classifications of supremacy, and state oppression. Yet, as the recent shootings in Atlanta demonstrate, this wound – while deep – lays right at the surface, a festering open sore whose asymmetric virulence ravages some in our society, while seemingly sparing others whose privilege unjustly offers them unearned immunity.

While it is true that the Roman Empire knew nothing of modern conceptions of race, they were certainly ensnared in toxic webs of supremacy, all of which blinded them to the powerful forces at play in what Christianity has come to see as a defining moment in both divine and human time.

And yet…

Jesus, son of Joseph – the human being who lived and died under the ever-present gaze of the Roman colonial dominance structure – was also just another oppressed person, trying to survive at the margins of society, who was branded a criminal without anything resembling a real trial, whose body was only seen as useful to the state to the extent that it could serve as a sacrifice in the public liturgy of fear that was the ritual of crucifixion. In our rush to see the divine in Jesus, might we obscure the memory of the  actual human being who was humiliated, tortured, and eventually, in a last gasp of despair, died an excruciatingly painful death?

Mark 15 outlines the framework of this liturgy and its constituent rituals. Here, Mark engages in two movements: one, a point-by-point outlining of the specific ways that the Roman state used Jesus as a tool in its liturgy of violence; two, a deliberate framing of the memory of this event by the author to demonstrate the divine meaning and purpose which the Christian community had come to see in Jesus.

This liturgy has several movements. First, the state lays out the narrative of the accused as  an enemy of the state and who threatens the power of the state itself (15:1-5). Once the state lays out the charges (declaring himself an alternative “King” in defiance of Rome’s absolute authority), it then seeks the legal warrant to impose punishment: by offering the crowd the false “choice” of Barabbas or Jesus (15:6-15), Pilate is enlisting the crowd into the liturgy, and ensuring that the state can claim that the public itself saw the necessity to punish the dangerous criminal in order to ensure public safety, order, and the authority of the state. By having the crowd state the desired punishment (15:13-14, “Crucify him!”), the crowd cannot later declare that it was an illegal act. 

Crucifixion had several components. There was the element of humiliation, interwoven with absolute disempowerment: of the crucified, of their families and communities, and finally, of whatever the crucified stood for. This is first demonstrated in 15:16-19, where the soldiers mock Jesus, the Jews as a people, and the idea that Jesus might ever be a threat to the overwhelming power of the state. By forcing a random passerby to carry the cross (15:21), the soldiers demonstrated that the Roman power was absolute and capricious, further cementing the humiliation of the entire population of Palestine by demonstrating that Rome could control them at will. 

The actual crucifixion ritual itself includes several individual elements of humiliation and disempowerment: the crucified were brought to a specific place for the ritual to occur (15:22), they were drugged (15:23, 36), they were stripped completely naked (15:24; which injects an element of sexual abuse and humiliation into the ritual) and were forced to watch as soldiers gambled away their last remaining possessions (15:24). Once they were crucified, the humiliation was now an entirely public ritual, for the community to either participate in (15:25-33, 35), or to endure (15:40-41). 

The crucifixion was also obviously a ritual of physical torture, with only one result: death. Pilate, as representative of the state, got the torture started with a flogging (15:15) and then handed off the torture to the soldiers, who pierced him with thorns and beat him (15:17-19). Usually, crucifixion lasted for days, and death only came once your body simply couldn’t endure the pain, asphyxiation, infection from the nails, or just the sheer exhaustion of the entire liturgy. Jesus actually died relatively quickly, succumbing in a few hours (15:33-34, 37). The liturgy didn’t end with death, however. Instead, as the crucified was now owned entirely by the state, the final act of the liturgy involved requiring the family and/or friends of the crucified to beg the state for permission to claim the body of the dead person, permission that was by no means guaranteed (15:42-45). The liturgy only came to an end when the crucified person’s body was in the hands of those who would bury it (15:46-47).

On a human level, Jesus’s death was only noticed by those members of his immediate community. His community was inconsolable at his loss, but not because he represented the field of battle between cosmic forces. Instead, he was the son who cried on his mother’s chest; he was the friend who shared inside jokes; he was the teacher who inspired many to re-imagine their place in the world; he was the advocate for justice who lost his temper in the Temple; he was the healer who quietly looked people in the eye and showed them compassion; he was the gifted storyteller who entertained crowds of people; he was the traveling companion who got cranky and lost his patience when he was tired. 

He was fully, beautifully human, a person whose value to his immediate circle was incalculable. Yet, his worth to the Roman state only lay in how they could use his pain and despair while dying – and his decaying corpse when dead – in their public liturgy of oppression, his flesh hanging on a pike declaring for all to see that Rome was in charge, and would crush any who would consider daring to question their right to enact justice in any way they saw fit.

The liturgy of state violence serves the exact same purpose, regardless of whether the state is the Empire of Rome, the Nation of the United States of America, the State of Minnesota, or the City of Louisville, Kentucky. The specific rituals of the liturgy differ, but they all exist to maintain hierarchies of power. They demonstrate both the physical power of the state to defend its own definition of justice and worth, and the psychological power of the state to strike fear in those who might consider disputing the state’s definitions.

In this moment of transition between seasons, we are in the midst of a wave of anniversaries of the deaths of human beings, whose names – Freddie Grey, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, amongst many, many others – have come to represent symbolic battlefields upon which both states and people are engaging in pitched fighting over issues of structural injustice and the value of human life. The state sacrificed these lives in rituals of violence with the purpose of demonstrating the boundaries of acceptable conduct for specific communities.

The state did not see the human being Breonna Taylor, the devoted healer whose life her loving boyfriend – Kenneth Walker – sought to protect. Instead, they saw a dangerous drug dealer, and a threat to the stability and order of the municipality. The murder of Breonna Taylor was not an isolated ritual of state violence; instead, the liturgy of state violence encompassed the entire event, from the ritual of the city passing laws allowing “no-knock warrants,” to the ritual of the police official requesting the warrant, to the ritual of the judge giving legal permission to employ the warrant, to the ritual of the heavily armored paramilitary posse using shock-and-awe techniques to pacify any resistance through the employment of overwhelming force, to the ritual of shocking gun violence unleashed into the home of this “dangerous criminal,” and finally to the ritual of the state laying blame for its own violent liturgy at the feet of Mr. Walker, charging him for assault and attempted murder due to the danger the bullets fired from his weapon posed to his neighbors and the police. 

This entire liturgical framework depends upon the assumption that the state has an inherent right to declare which lives have intrinsic worth, and which lives only have worth when they can be sacrificed in the liturgy of state violence. 

At the same time, however, their lives have also become symbolically powerful, fueling movements which have emerged in response to the absolute injustice and sin of their deaths. In our attempts to fight against these forces of violence, we also sacrifice the human beings in the ritual of meaning-making, chanting their names in the street as symbols of all of those sacrificed on the altar of state power.

And yet…

These martyrs, these symbolic figures, were also human beings, with actual joys and pains and laughter, actual communities who depended upon them, and actual families who have been broken and scarred by these liturgies of power, and rituals of memory. In our rush to declare the injustice of these deaths, and to use the memory of their lives as people oppressed by unjust structures of racism and state violence to protest against these same structures – pursuits I think are both necessary, and valuable, in the continuous struggle against injustice and oppression – might we also obscure the memory of their lives as real human beings, and engage in a second silencing of humans already silenced by the state?

Or, by focusing on the symbolic power of these individual deaths, do we obscure, or even outright ignore, the foundational traumatic memory of slavery which not only undergirds the structural oppressions which enable these state liturgies in the first place, but silently haunts the entire concept of policing in the United States? Behind every enactment of this liturgy stalks the memory of the slave catcher, and the state power which granted them the pyrite sheen of legitimacy. Every time we fail to acknowledge the presence of this foundational memory, our amnesia grants the slave catcher a place in our contemporary reality.

Yes, their lives have incredible symbolic power, but it is only in their humanity that we can find invaluable lessons about the ways human beings can retain their joy, love, compassion, and hope in the face of state oppression. In the same way, while the Passion is incredibly powerful for Christians in the ways that it encapsulates the symbolic power of Jesus as the Divine Christ, it is only in the memories of Jesus the fully human that we can find what I argue is the greatest power of the story for human lives held captive by the oppressive forces of Empire: the strength to face our crippling fear, stare the full oppressive might of the state in the face, and refuse to cede our full humanity – our joy, love, compassion, and hope – in service to the state’s liturgies of violence and fear.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!