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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Blame-Shifting—Mark 15:1-39 (Amy Merrill Willis)

The narratives of the crucifixion are narratives within which we are implicated as sinful human beings. However, many Christian readers of the gospels have read these texts in a manner that demonizes the Jews while absolving themselves.

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.

6Now 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.

16Then 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.

21They 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.

25It 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.

33When 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!”

Each year during the span of time that includes Palm Sunday and Holy Week, the worldwide Christian community relives and re-enacts the terrible events that brought Jesus of Nazareth to the cross.

The events are terrible in various ways. It is hard to escape the human suffering of the passion and crucifixion that Mark emphasizes by pointing to Jesus’ distress and agitation and his repeated prayer to be spared of this fate (14:32-42). Moreover, as the writer of Luke-Acts emphasizes, these events amount to a miscarriage of justice that bring about the death of an innocent man—an injustice that none of us would wish on another. They are also terrible because that innocent man is no less than the Son of God, and what is morally worse than killing God’s beloved one?

On Palm Sunday, Christians re-implicate themselves in the torture and death of Jesus. As Anna Floerke Scheid wrote in last Friday’s post on this blog, ‘Many of us will find ourselves cast in the role of those who do violence, shouting out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” in readings of the passion.’ Christians of various political and theological persuasions understand that they are complicit in the reality of sin and injustice that brought Christ to the cross, that human depravity is not simply the burden of humans who lived in the past. Sin is a corporate reality that ties the Christians of the present to their ancestors. As the 17th century Lutheran hymn says,

“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon You?
It is my treason, Lord, that has undone You.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied You;
I crucified You.”

Yet the stories of the passion and crucifixion contain a surplus of meaning. They bear multiple meanings and provoke contradictory responses. Thus, for both the gospels and for the Christian community, Christ’s death is not just terrible, it is also glorious and triumphant. For Luke, Christ’s death provokes judgment on the injustice of humans, but for John the crucifixion is less about suffering and more about Christ’s exaltation and glorification. For Mark and Matthew, Christ’s death is the noble self- sacrifice that vanquishes the corrosive and alienating effect of human sin. It is tragically ironic, however, that even as the narratives provoke self-reflection and nurture Christian indebtedness for the noble self-sacrifice of Christ, all four gospels have also encouraged Christian readers to shift blame away from self and onto Jesus’ own co-religionists.

Mark’s gospel, the earliest of the four, deftly reworks the dynamics of political power and the details of history to put the responsibility for Jesus’ death on the Jewish community. Elaine Pagels asks us to look closely at Mark’s rendering of Pontius Pilate.[1] Multiple historical sources document Pilate’s brutal and inflammatory leadership tactics in Judea. In one of many instances of political overreach, Pilate disregarded the Jewish prohibition of images and brought military standards bearing images into Jerusalem. The action caused a massive crowd to form in protest to his power. The crowd succeeded in making Pilate back down, but only after he had brutally beaten and killed many.[2] Mark’s gospel, however, paints a picture of a squeamish Pilate, one who believes in Jesus’ innocence but who is unwilling to exercise his power for the cause of justice. Unlike the historical Pilate, the Pilate of the gospel narrative feels compelled from the beginning to appease the crowd and its leadership (15:1-15). Mark’s gospel shifts the blame for Jesus’ death as a political subversive from the Romans to Jesus’ own people because the author is focused on his own political and social situation in the late 60’s CE, some 30 years after the death of Jesus, when factionalism created social and religious rifts between the early Jewish-Christians and their Jewish neighbors in the synagogues. Each successive gospel magnifies the dynamic and makes Pilate and the Romans more and more sympathetic while vilifying the Jewish community more and more. Thus the self-sacrificial act of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Christ, comes to legitimate the repeated sacrifice of the Jewish community by the Christian community, especially once Christianity aligns itself with the state power of Constantine.

Commenting on the Passover sacrifice in which Jesus participates during his last supper with the disciples, Alastair Roberts points to the deep ambiguity of the phenomenon of sacrifice. If the Passover sacrifice of Exodus 12 constitutes Israel as a nation, then Jesus’ own Passover sacrifice constitutes Christianity as a covenant community ‘founded upon divine initiative and redemption.’ Roberts argues that this status calls us to recognize the way in which illegitimate forms of sacrifice continue to be embedded in our societies and claim our allegiance, turning us away from the divinely constituted work of redemption that is at the heart of our Christian calling. Surely, the pervasive and structural anti-semitism that infects both Christian communities and secular societies must be recognized as an illegitimate form of sacrifice that Christians have participated in and continue to participate in, even if when we do so inadvertently.[3]

[1] Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 28-34.
[2] See Josephus, The Jewish War, Book II, chap 9.
[3] Amy-Jill Levine documents the pervasive nature of this anti-semitism in Christian history and discourse in her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2007).

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