One of the things I have reflected upon in recent debates about discrimination with our treatment of people who are black, women, asylum seekers, people who identify with the LGBTQI community, and people who are unemployed, to name some of those we habitually oppress and marginalise, is the deliberate, persistent dehumanisation of these groups and individuals over time.
People who fall into these categories are made invisible, ignored, disregarded and disappeared. They are commodified and objectified. Their opinions don’t matter, their lack of fit in our communities is always an opportunity for ridicule. Our sisters and brothers are the butt of endless jokes told at their expense, offered with casual cruelty, accompanied by exquisitely honed unending punishments and carelessness about the effects of fear. Every single person ‘othered’ like this, wears the price of another’s privilege in and on their bodies in life and in death. It is to people such as these Jesus, the suffering servant and Messiah came.
When I read and reread this very difficult story of the deliberate betrayal and murder of Jesus in Mark’s gospel I am confronted with how hard the religious leaders, Pilate, the Roman and Jewish authorities and the military worked to make Jesus less human. They made him an object without value, worthless in fact to everyone who was watching, to everyone concerned about their political and economic safety and entitlements so when he was killed he would effectively disappear. This process was important. It needed to be done comprehensively before they killed him. It is a strategy still used today as people continue to protest.
Consequently, I am reminded of the prophet Isaiah’s words about the suffering servant:
He was despised and rejected by others; he was despised, and we held him of no account. …he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities… He was oppressed and he was afflicted, by a perversion of justice he was taken away. He was cut off from the land of the living (Isaiah 53:3, 5, 7, 8)
We know Jesus’ companions and the crowds did not understand a Messiah who came as a servant, vulnerable, suffering and not interested in worldly power. His disciples didn’t accept this, nor did the crowds. They wanted what they’d always had, power with might, the only difference being they wanted to be the ones in power.
However, throughout the centuries, individuals dedicated to Jesus’ gospel justice, peace and healing have followed the suffering servant Jesus in their own sacrifice of wealth, power and even life so others may have life and be liberated from their misery.
We remember Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Corrie ten Boom and Mother Teresa to name a few.
Mark’s testimony of what took place is stark and brief: Jesus was betrayed, arrested, tried by the religious authorities, spat upon, bound, blindfolded and beaten by the temple guards. Then he was handed over to be tried by Pilate, beaten again by the soldiers, stripped naked and humiliated, clothed in purple, mocked and crowned with thorns. He was rejected by the crowds who screamed and shouted for his death. (Mark 14-15) His rejection of violence and words of love brought him undone. So finally, they got what they wanted.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. (Mark 15:25)
Our own understanding of torture and punishment means we recognise the use of nakedness and humiliation, shame and brokenness, contempt and dehumanisation to break our connection with the other person so we can agree to wiping them out and removal from history. Abu Ghraib prison taught us this lesson in recent times, just as the holocaust did with the Jews.
Jesus’ courage and acceptance of this cruel ending to which his community sentenced him is profound. He would also have understood and accepted the consequences of his own actions and message of hope as the servant Messiah, which inevitably evoked this response by the Roman and Jewish leaders. His deliberate, clear and welcoming witness to God’s love, salvation and the forgiveness of sin was such a challenge and horror to those around him, they all knew they would have to get rid of him completely to maintain their status quo. Jesus knew this. But God loved humanity so much God gave God’s life to save it nonetheless.
Mark 14 tells us about Jesus’ vulnerability as he faced into his death while he prayed alone in Gethsemane. There his disciples slept and then ran away from the betrayal and arrest.
However, incredibly in this story in spite of the horror, I hear and experience God’s enormous love for us. I hear how Jesus is already present in those places where we can find ourselves, broken and grieving with enormous loss, perhaps of someone we love, or when we ourselves are ill, knowing the ending of our own life as we make friends with death, or in other catastrophes life throws at us when we feel helpless and overwhelmed. Jesus is already present with us, showing us how to be. This doesn’t need power or might, it needs love and hope.
For those whom we have excluded from our communities, we know Jesus is present with them too, however hard we try to believe they are garbage and should be taken out with the trash. We might like to think they are unnoticed and unremarked, but God loves each of them, as we should too.
I have also been thinking about this in relation to the Covid pandemic and how it has changed our thinking about relationships and intimacy. People are dying in unimaginable numbers around the world including the most vulnerable. Yet each statistic is a human being, irrespective of how leaders might wish to explain away their actions and the lost lives.
I know fear and sorrow lick at the corners of our emotional and spiritual lives, the nurses dressed in covid gowns, gloves and masks distanced and hidden, when direct skin touching is not possible, and our dying becomes isolated and the absence of loved ones in the room evoke the same cry of Jesus on the cross: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.’ (Mark 15:34)
We sit at home watching the hospital rooms in our hearts, and we are present at 9 am on Friday morning, as we watch Jesus crucified.
I found the following quote from a hospital chaplain, Rev’d Angela Maddelone, in Northern Westchester hospital in New York from 6 May 2020:
When someone starts to cry my first reaction is to hold their hand,’ she says. ‘Now its with a gloved hand. So a lot of people are dying and they’ve not had any kind of touch since it began.’ But even with floors in lockdown, she says, no one is dying alone. ‘The nurses have been unbelievably compassionate. They’re present in people’s lives. One nurse asked me, ‘I just don’t what to say.’ I told her, ‘Just keep on saying, ‘you’re not alone, I am with you.’ (Brian Mealer, The Guardian 6 May 2020)
She provides us with a critical reminder; we are not alone! Jesus is present in all we do and say in life and in death, and with whomever we love, or hate. His power is the power of love.
In our world today, like Joseph of Arimathea together with the women present at Jesus’ burial, and with Rev’d Angela in the hospital, as Jesus’ followers we are taking careful note of the loved ones, the bodies buried without anyone apparently present, interred not under mounds of love and in tenderness, but under mounds of hatred, greed, power, fear and pride.
If we stay here a while watching Jesus on the cross, watching Jesus in the hospital rooms, Jesus in the concentration camps, detention centres and unemployment centres, Jesus in the women’s refuges and police station lock-ups, if we truly desire to see what God has always seen and will always see, we will be able to find our way back to that place, moving from the cross to stand joyfully at the empty tomb, time and again, bringing all the others back into notice, back into the human story, like God did with God’s ownself, enlisting the Power once burst from a rock-hewn grave, and with God’s help we will help to raise the forgotten, dismissed, unwanted and unloved also from the dead.
The Lord be with you.