APRIL 10 – CRUCIFIXION AND ABU GHRAIB
DEVOTIONAL: This year I am reading the crucifixion story through the lens of an unknown photographer’s camera. One of my responsibilities as a member of the Lenten planning committee at Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church, has been to choose visual images to project during the scripture readings. For me, these kinds of juxtapositions are a form of Bible study that can break open the text in new ways.
With the pastor’s sermons in hand, I searched for images to pair with Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Certainly there were many traditional paintings to choose from. One particularly jarring representation is Matthais Grunwald’s Crucifixion, which shows Christ with lacerated skin and lips already blue from asphyxiation.
However, I found myself drawn to a more recent time and place: Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison where U.S. military personnel tortured and shamed prisoners in 2004. One of the most widely disseminated photographs from this ghastly chapter of the Iraq War is a fuzzy snapshot of a man with a pointed black hood, balancing on a box in a black cape. Wires attach to his extended palms and he has reportedly been told he will be electrocuted if he falls off the box.
Could this man’s experience teach me something about the story at the center of my faith? Does Jesus’ crucifixion speak to what happened at Abu Ghraib? I reread the sermon I was working from. “Polite upperclass Romans would not talk about crucifixions; they were just too awful to speak about,” the sermon said. That checked out. This was the only photograph from Abu Ghraib I would even consider sharing publicly.
I turned to Mark 14 and 15. Previously, I’d read Jesus’ trial before the high priest (Mark 14:53-65) as an argument between annoying relatives engaged in doctrinal hairsplitting. This time their debate emerged as a sinister interrogation, manipulative and cruel. The randomness of Pilate’s justice chilled me; the blindfold in Mark 14:65 was a blow to the solar plexus, and Jesus’ lack of control over his clothing made my teeth chatter. The beatings, the slapping, the jeering were no longer contained in a tidy three-day package with a happy ending. They sprawled over 2000 years.
It seems that God is well acquainted with places like Abu Ghraib. This Holy Week, may the suffering that Christ endured while on trial as a “terrorist” fill us with compassion. Let us remember those who still suffer violence and torture. Let the rage we feel against hatred and cruelty be refined into acts of mercy and courageous defiance.
SCRIPTURE: Mark 15:1-39 (NRSV)
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’