It’s Holy Saturday, and as a Christian I’m in that strange pause between the abyss of Good Friday and the explosion of the Easter Vigil. I should be thinking about the words of the Creed, “he descended to the dead”, or as the older renditions had it, “he descended into hell”.
The ancient tradition of the Church is that during the time of his death, Jesus offered salvation to all the departed who had come before him. Orthodox icons of the Resurrection show him trampling the gates of hell, pulling up a frightened and diffident Adam and Eve by their wrists.
There is so much more I could say about that, but what I’ve been thinking about, yesterday and today, is how Jesus was guilty and deserved to die.
Christian theology has always emphasized that Jesus was sinless and did no wrong. He was tempted and did not yield; he carried out the will of his Father, but humankind rejected what he offered. The crucifixion was a rejection of divine love, the ultimate horror, injustice to Jesus as man, blasphemy to Jesus as God.
From the point of view of Easter, the point of view of the Resurrection and Ascension, that is of course correct. But it helps me also to look at Jesus from the point of view of those who condemned and executed him.
He came from Galilee–the armpit of a province that the Romans considered the armpit of the Empire. He was yet another itinerant preacher and healer and miracle-worker–or was he? He gathered larger crowds than usual. He was rumored to be connected to the old royal line, descended from David–unlike the Herodians. At least some of his followers wanted to make him king, which would have been a direct challenge to Roman authority. All this peace and love talk, healing the sick, eating with outcasts, breaking down the divisions that keep a society functioning properly, could be a cover for something more.
Then one day this Jesus enters Jerusalem in a sort of triumphal procession. People are acclaiming him as Son of David and King of Israel. Then he’s in the Temple, throwing around a whip, tipping over tables, interrupting the lawful commerce, and saying things about destroying and rebuilding the Temple. Hadn’t they just done that? Hadn’t Herod just finished restoring the Temple that had been desecrated by Antiochus and re-dedicated by the Maccabees? Worst of all, the Roman governor was actually in the city, having come with his soldiers to keep a close eye on things during Passover.
What you have to remember is, first, the Palestine of Jesus’ day was an occupied country, ruled by the Romans with some collaboration from the Jewish religious and political authorities; and second, that the Temple in Jerusalem was not just the religious center of the country, but the political and financial center as well. Jesus threw his own tickertape parade, then walked in and set off a bomb in a location that was the White House, the World Trade Center, and the Vatican all in one. He was obviously dangerous.
In John’s Gospel, Caiaphas the high priest says, “It is expedient that one man should die for the people.” John connects that to the saving nature of Jesus’ death, but Caiaphas also meant, I think, that it was better for them to turn over a dodgy popular figure to the Romans–however popular he was–than to give the Romans any pretext for military action. Better to get Jesus crucified and safely out of the way than to risk Roman soldiers marching through the holy city, killing everyone in sight. Whatever this man is teaching, it’s too dangerous, too volatile. Get him off the scene.
John’s Gospel, and to a lesser extent the Synoptic Gospels, also present the Roman governor Pilate as doing everything he can to avoid executing Jesus. Frankly, this just doesn’t jibe with what we know of Pilate historically. He was a fairly brutal governor who would no more have thought twice about executing a possible insurrectionist than he would about swatting a fly that was biting him. If someone was willing to testify convincingly that Jesus claimed the old Judaean monarchy, Pilate no doubt executed the man with a clear conscience. He was protecting the interests of the Empire and of the locality.
I don’t think Jesus was a terrorist, a zealot, as a recent book has argued. I think the Gospels are fairly reliable about what he did and taught. And I think that what he did and taught, as the Gospels show it to us, is plenty threatening to occupying armies, political collaborators, governments that want to keep the peace at all costs. He ignored the distinctions between men and women, Jews and Gentiles, pure and impure. He healed and ate with people without checking their bona fides. He counseled neither resisting oppression nor submitting, but rather subverting it. He encouraged people to think of themselves as more than worthless peasants, cogs in the machine, drudges in the field, commodities to be exploited. He questioned rules and regulations and dared people to look at their motivations, their beliefs, their inner dispositions.
I have no doubt that the same self-styled Christians who oppose gay marriage, who want women out of the workforce, who affirm capitalism as a God-given economic system, who think the poor deserve their poverty and the rich their wealth, would be standing right next to Annas and Caiaphas recommending that Jesus be crucified. These are the same people who were offended by a statue of Jesus as a homeless man, sleeping on a bench–the same Jesus who said of himself that he had nowhere to lay his head. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, that they worship a homeless man who was executed as a terrorist.