I sat in a church on Palm Sunday. The Deacon was the narrator and members of the congregation read other characters' parts of the The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, telling the story of Jesus' betrayal and crucifixion. When the person reading Pilate's lines asked “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” the congregation read aloud, “Crucify him!” When Pilate went on, “Why, what evil has he done?” The congregation read again, “Crucify him!”
I could not possibly add anything to the mountain of commentary that must exist on this passage. But I can't stop thinking about what it was like to sit among a group of perfectly lovely people and read aloud such ghastly words.
I thought of some crowds I have been in which shouted their displeasure with various politicians. I thought of the pogroms against Jews that used to arise in parts of Europe as an accompaniment to the Christian Holy Week. I thought of the calls for violence against Muslims that were heard in the U.S. after the attacks on September 11. I thought of the Mormons being run out of towns many years ago and ultimately fleeing to safety in Utah. I thought of mobs all over the globe throughout time.
The people in the church I visited on Palm Sunday were warm and welcoming. As they read their lines, there was no trace of anger. To the contrary, they seemed to draw comfort and strength from the reading. They accepted history and their obligation to carry the messages that have been handed down to them.
I thought of the readings in the Jewish Holy Days services where the congregation takes collective and individual responsibility for the wrongs committed during the preceding year. “For the sins that we have committed...” we repeat over and over as the list of sins is worked through. None of us has committed all of them, nor has any of us avoided them all.
The differences in the ways that society was organized and governed in Jesus' time as compared to our own are significant. I am sure that Pilate's asking the crowd what to do with an accused offender would be understood differently than if a governor were to ask the same question to the citizenry today. But by playing the part of a member of the crowd, everyone in church with me this morning got to have a taste of what it is like to judge and condemn. I am sure I am not the only one who was discomforted, and I am sure that it is not an accident that those were the only lines that we as a congregation were given to read.
None of us is responsible for Jesus' death thousands of years ago. Each of us is responsible for the voices that we add to today's calls for violence. Many people called out for the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, and the cry was answered. Our Congress and President are calling for “crippling sanctions” against the people of Iran, and threatening the same kind of violence that we visited on its neighbors. Many are crying out for similar treatment of Syria's leadership. As we make our voices heard to those to whom we have given the power to carry out our will, we should consider to what extent we have learned the lessons that have been given to us, and to what extent we are ignoring them.