I wish that I could say that this violence is out of the ordinary, but it's not. We have increased coverage, but communities of color would tell us that they've always endured violence, both from their fellow citizens and from officers who took an oath to protect us all. Even during the time of lockdown, 2020 was one of the deadliest years for gun violence, even if we had fewer mass shootings (see this article in The Washington Post for more details).
Diana Butler Bass has written a powerful essay for Good Friday 2021. She considers the issue of the crowd, both the one in Minneapolis watching George Floyd die, unsure of what to do and unable to do much even as they wished they could, and the crowds at the time of the trauma of Jesus, crowds who were surely feeling the same thing: "The imperial police were torturing a man who was most likely innocent as they forced him through city streets to his death. Some may have turned their heads, not wanting to see the same scene again, having witnessed far too many victims taken down this very route toward the same end. Others might have been horrified by the whipping, the cold cruelty of the Roman soldiers. A few reached out to offer comfort, to plead with the executioners for mercy."
She says, "This week, we are reminded that the trauma of oppressive systems isn’t borne only by its most direct victims. Imperial violence spreads from the knee on the neck and the cross on a back of individual sufferers to the bystanders, the witnesses, others on the way. Here we see the powerful truth — those on sidewalks become casualties as well."
Good Friday comes around again to remind us that the problem of violence isn't new to our generation. It wasn't new to Christ's generation. I was taught that Jesus had to come to the world to save us from our habit of violence, that he had to die on the cross to appease his angry father God--otherwise, that harsh punishment would have fallen on our heads.
I could make the argument that harsh punishment is falling on our heads day after day, year after year, century after century. What difference does the death of Christ make anyway?
Let me be clear: I do not believe in the substitutionary atonement theory that explains the death of Jesus as necessary to keep us all from going to hell. I believe that Jesus was killed because he was a threat to the Roman empire. Crucifixion was the punishment for terrorists; other types of criminals were stoned or beheaded.
I can't find the Richard Rohr quote that I'd like to end with, so I'll paraphrase. The cross is not God's requirement to love us. Crucifixion is the world's response to God's love. Jesus comes to show us of the depth of Divine love, and for his trouble, the Roman empire crucified him.
And yet, God can use this ugliness too. The empty tomb tells us that empires and other powers will not have the last word. Out of utter cruelty and depravity, we can find new life, new hope.