There is danger under all circumstances of misreading Easter, but the danger is specially great in communities that have experienced war and genocide. If Jesus was murdered and if we identify with Jesus, then who murdered Him? If Jesus rises and if we rise with Jesus, then who or what are the powers of darkness, the powers of this world, that are vanquished in His/our resurrection?
There is of course a purely personal, individual, and trivial way to read Easter. It was I who murdered Jesus. And mine are the dark powers vanquished in His/my resurrection with him. This of course is the reading that gained currency in the 17th and 18th centuries and that we rightly associate not only with the gospel of high industrial capitalism, but also, more recently, with the proliferation of the post-institutional, post-confessional church, in which everything revolves around my own experience, my own subjectivity, my own feelings: I am (Lukacs-like) the Subject-Object of History. This I take is not the danger of the readers of this blog.
But let us say that we take what we assume to be a purely historical reading. In this case we will focus on the Roman police state and of course on the collaborators within occupied Palestine. We will in this case be able to appreciate much better perhaps why state actors grow anxious when any movement gains sufficient power to disrupt normal state operations; and we will be able to appreciate why members of the occupied community might similarly grow annoyed when a movement risks attracting unwanted attention from the occupying force, either because the occupiers are not likely to be so discriminating in who they punish (which they never are) or because even under occupation livings have to be made which are just as likely disrupted by home grown rebels as by the occupiers. Better to leave well enough alone.
War invariably frays and often breaks the already fragile fibers that connect families to their only sources of livelihood. War invites the unwanted attention of state actors whose interests are not those of the occupied community.
By the time we come to John’s reading of the Passion, the principle actors in the story have already assumed their archetypal positions. There is the detachment of soldiers, which, it turns out, is needed because the Jesus group is armed and is ready to use its arms against the state (18:3), and which bolts into action whenever bodily violence is needed (19:34). There is Simon Peter who, as a leading member of the Jesus group, appears more than ready to take up his sword to advance the Kingdom by force of arms, but, who, when faced with the likelihood of trial and death, denies any involvement (18:10,17,25,27). There is the slave, doubly oppressed, whose ear Peter severs (18:10). There is the cock, who, better than anyone else, knows what time it is (18:27). There is the woman who guarded the gate and who evidently was a member of the Temple’s intelligence network (18:16-17). There are the slaves of the police (18:18). There is the High Priest, Caiaphas, and his father-in-law, Annas, who, wishing to mitigate violence and unrest in their community, agree that one person — evidently Jesus — should be handed over to the occupying force (18:14-28). There are the police, vigilant to make sure that the occupied community fear and obey the authorities (18:18,22). There is Pilate, who, like most occupying governors, clearly has little grasp of local politics and theology, and who perhaps is wishing that he had received an appointment anywhere else but Palestine (18:28-19:16). There are the religious zealots, the crowds, to whom Pilate turns, mistakenly it turns out, to gain leverage against the official religious hierarchy (18:38-39). There is Barabbas, who had operated on the boundaries of legality, but whose usefulness to the occupiers had run its course (18:40). There are the soldiers who crucified Jesus and who it would appear were accustomed to making a little money on the side selling the clothes of crucified criminals (19:23). There is Jesus’ mother; his mother’s sister, also Mary; and Mary Magdalene — a trinity of witnesses to whom Jesus entrusts the care of the remaining community (19:25-27). There is the sponge, dipped in wine and — in the final act of direct communication with the dying Jesus — applied to Jesus’ lips (19:29-30). There is Joseph who, on reasonably good terms with Pilate, is permitted to take Jesus’ body (19:38). There is Nicodemus, representative of the local Chevra Kaddisha, who lovingly prepares Jesus’ body for burial (18:39-40). Lastly, there are Judas and, of course, Jesus; Judas who betrayed him and Jesus, the betrayed, the accused, the mute, the crucified.
All of these clearly — including Judas and Jesus — are set types. Through them and their stories, John, the gospeler, invites us to reenact the story and to take our place within it. Is it 80 CE? Is it 90 CE? For sure, the readers are aware that the setting is now gone; the Temple, the chief priest, Pilate, Caiaphas are all gone, victims of the rage of Vespasian and weapons of Titus his son. Close to a million Jews were killed. The Temple was destroyed. Until then the Jesus group had been no more than a heterodox sect within the Jerusalem Jewish community. With the Temple’s destruction and subsequent diaspora, faithful Jews expelled from Jerusalem felt it best to uphold higher standards. Among surviving Christians, indiscriminately executed and expelled with other Jews, there was significant reluctance to join Paul’s communities since they were much more ritually lax than the Christian community in Jerusalem. Clearly, then, John is not asking us to a reenactment of events in Jerusalem.
Who are the police, the soldiers, the priests, the slaves? Who is Barabbas? Who are the Marys? Who are the politicians? Who is Judas? Who is Jesus?
We are inclined to pick and choose here. We are the Marys. We are the cock. We are the slaves. We are Joseph or Nicodemus. We are definitely not Annas or Caiaphas. We are not Pilate. We are not Barabbas. (Are we Peter?) We are not Judas or the soldiers. We are not the police. But what if we are?
Walk out your front door in Bosnia and Herzegovina and it is impossible not to stumble over evidence of these types: police and politicians, petty criminals and slaves, soldiers and priests litter the landscape. So too do those who care for the dead and dying. So, where are we and who are we here? Here is my suspicion. I suspect that John did not want us to fix on this or that type, but to take in the entire scene — the Roman oppressors and occupiers, the collaborators, the thieves, the soldiers, the police, the religious — and recognize the complexity of the scene, with Jesus, the Palestinian Jew, mute, at its center. The aim is not to lay blame on one or relieve another of complicity. The aim is to understand, to recognize, the complexity. Here we are on Good Friday and all of these characters — still — are present. They are always present. And, so, what will you do? Which role will you play? With whom do you identify?
We identify with Jesus not against any of these others; but with Jesus with all of these others. He is not pointing any fingers. He is not leveling any judgments. He is demanding the death of no one.