A week ago Friday, students from a local Christian high school attending a basketball game at a school where a large percentage of the students are Jewish got carried away. They began taunting members of the opponent school’s team, chanting “You killed Jesus.”
The chant came just one day after Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, speaking at Temple Emanuel in Newton, called for both Catholics and Jews to “build a civilization of love.” The talk marked the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a proclamation from Pope Paul VI in 1965 that repudiated anti-Semitism and stated that Jews did not bear collective responsibility for the death of Christ.
This incident was a horrifying continuation of thousands of years of anti-semitism facilitated by our current political climate, which seems to foment division and scapegoating.
But it also perpetuates a deadly misunderstanding of the story we tell today in church. It was not the Jews who killed Jesus. No one in this story – neither Jew nor Gentile – does anything to protect or support Jesus. His disciples can’t stay awake to defend him. His best friend, Peter, betrays him 3 times. The Roman soldiers mock and beat him without any provocation. The Roman leader Pilate, after declaring him innocent, gives in to the crowd’s anger by foisting him off on Herod. At the cross, the disciples and the women stand at a distance, not wanting to be associated with him.
It’s not Jews. It’s everybody. It’s a story about all people at all times, our human tendency to be bystanders to cruelty and injustice — to protect ourselves rather than protecting others.
On November 9, 1938, the hidden Nazi violence against the Jewish people went public. That night, called Krystallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, there was a rampage of violence against Jewish synagogues, homes, and businesses. That night, Dietrich Bonhoeffer opened his Bible and read Psalm 74. In the margin he wrote, “How long, O God, shall I be a bystander?” For Bohnoeffer, a young pastor, that was the turning point, and the rest of his life was a commitment to be an upstander for love’s sake.
The cross will not let us be bystanders. The story at the center of this Holy Week calls on us to ally ourselves with those who would be scapegoated, to stand with the least, the lost, and the last, because that’s where Jesus stood. And that’s where Jesus hung — right by two thieves — two men who really had done something wrong — even they he saw as human beings first and criminals second.
This week, our Episcopal bishops called on us to not be bystanders to the violent rhetoric that increasingly characterizes our political discourse in this election year. Here is their Word to the Church:
On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.
In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.
The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.
I am looking forward to Easter, and I bet you are, too. I love to ring the bells, splash in the water, I love eating ham and chocolate eggs and hearing the trumpet play along with “Jesus Christ is Risen today.”
But this year, let’s not rush to Easter. It will come. But if we rush there, without sitting with this hard story of the passion of our Lord, then we pretend we don’t have some truth to confront: truth about our own hardness of heart, our own tendency to scapegoat and dismiss, the ways in which we yell “Crucify!” in our own day and age.
What if we gave up calling our opponents “idiots” or “stupid.” What if we intentionally supported those working for a just peace in places most others have written off as hopeless. What if, when we heard violent rhetoric being used, instead of rolling our eyes or turning away, we spoke up, wrote a letter, took action.
If we would become the story we tell of salvation and hope, resurrection and joy, then we must see ourselves in the dark parts of the story, too, and repent of that. Only then can we turn, as did the thief on the cross, to the one who can and will save us, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”