Holy Witness: Good Friday
Later that week, Jesus was betrayed by one of his own friends, he was arrested, interrogated, and beaten. "It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The notice of the formal charge against him was written, “The king of the People.”
They crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left. From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary of Magdala, the other women and the disciple that Jesus loved, stood near the cross.
At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?" Jesus let out a loud cry and died. The curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion, who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “This man was certainly God’s Son.”
The story of the violent death of Jesus is a story of power and violence. We know that Jesus’s teachings and actions didn’t win him any friends among religious leaders who’d hoped to align with power and privilege. His actions were an affront to the ruling authority and could not go unanswered, and future attempts needed to be disrupted.
Theologian James Cone makes the connection between the crucifixion and the lynching tree, and theologian Kelly Brown Douglas draws the correlation forward to our modern “law and order” and “stand your ground” culture. She writes,
“It is only in recognizing Jesus’ crucifixion as a lynching that we can appreciate the significance in a stand-your-ground war, and, hence, the meaning of God’s justice in stand-your-ground times.
Lynching is one of the most heinous weapons of stand-your-ground culture. Whether the weapon of choice is a rope, a cotton-gin fan with barbed wire (Emmett Till), chains at the end of a car, (James Byrd), or a gun, it is a lynching just the same. Lynching is about power standing its ground against anyone it deems a threat.”
The story of the violent death of Jesus is a story of power and violence. It’s the story of young black men being killed at the hands of police. It’s the story of African-American and Native American women who are three times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. It’s the stories of anti-transgender violence. It’s the story of privilege and wealth running rampant. Jesus was killed for the same reasons as those whose very existence challenges the status quo, who preach a dangerous message of love and equality, who dream of a future of justice. He died because of the sin that is supremacy and greed, the sin that is white-patriarchy and legal systemic violence.
Jesus’ death on a cross was meant to strike fear in those who would follow him, intending to silence the coutner-cultrual movement It was and is a public service announcement, this will be your fait too.
The words that Jesus offers around that table, this is my body broken for you, broken for justice, foretell of the ways his body will be broken not for our individual salvation, but as the cost of challenging imperial power. This story of crucifixion, of oppression, is the most human of stories, it is the most utterly normal story throughout human history.
In the book, Proverbs of Ashes, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker write,
“To know that the presence of God endures through violence is to know life holds more than its destruction. The power of life is strong.
Salvation [Liberation] is sometimes possible.
Salvation begins with the courage of witnesses whose gaze is steady. Steady witnesses neither flee in horror to hide their eyes, nor console with sweet words, 'It isn't all that bad. Something good is intended by this.'
Violence is illuminated by insistent exposure. Steady witnesses end the hidden life of violence by bringing it to public attention.”
Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary of Magdala, the other women and the disciple that Jesus loved, stood near the cross and witnessed. Cellphone footage, and #SayTheirName, witness to death and violence, ending the silence, chipping away at the power of violence, bringing light and public attention. Each time we tell these stories, when we take and eat and remember, we again become witnesses to the violence of power and we remember that salvation, that liberation, begins with the courage of witnesses whose gaze is steady.
We do not leave with a happy ending or a neatly tied bow.
This holy week is about witnessing.
May our gaze be steady.
May we be brave and vulnerable, for we know what it is to have courage.