The Trayvon Martin story is tragic for many reasons. We see one of them in what his death has again brought to the surface: deeply rooted convictions that the system is flawed. We have a hard time trusting the criminal-justice processes in particular cases when the system-wide injustices remain so persistent.
As Christians move into the week that most defines our faith, a week of remembering and reliving Jesus’ death and resurrection, this idea of a broken system provides an poignant setting for us to consider the ongoing significance of what happened to him nearly 2000 years ago.
“Tell me how you die and I will tell you who you are.”
So said the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. His point was that our deaths reflect our lives. The manner in which a person dies reveals something about who she really is.
Death gets a say in defining a person’s identity, even when the identity death gives is unfair or potentially dehumanizing, like “cancer victim.” Some people get fancy mausoleums; others wind up in a mass grave.
Likewise the death of Jesus is a key piece of understanding who he was. Death was more than something for him to endure, just so he could rise again. Jesus’ execution forever writes an identity upon him, as indicated in the Gospels’ accounts of his resurrection. His wounds don’t close up or turn to more seemly scar tissue; they remain, making him forever “one who was crucified.” He remains someone who was opposed. The Rejected One. The Humiliated One.
The manner of Jesus’ death tells us much about how his contemporaries viewed his life. At least, it tells us how those in power regarded him. He died a victim of Roman capital punishment, a special form of execution reserved for slaves, the lowest classes, and political insurgents. The two men exterminated alongside Jesus? They weren’t simple “bandits” or “thieves.” The word for them in Mark 15:27 referred in other ancient writings to revolutionaries. Jesus died, like the sign posted on his cross said, precisely because his deeds, words, and reputation were seen as contrary to Roman interests, promoting a different “king” and “kingdom” in a political setting with no tolerance for such longings.
From Rome’s perspective, this crucifixion was neither a case of mistaken identity nor a failure of the judicial “system.” Notice the scenes in which Jesus is interrogated; those who judge him understand his claims quite well. Jesus’ death was exactly what Rome demanded for someone like him, the predictable outcome of the life he led.
Reliving the Story
The account of Jesus’ “passion” (the word derives from the Greek term for “suffering”) in the Gospel according to Mark includes hardly any hints of hopefulness. It’s a dismal story, describing a man relinquished to human authority, to a system bent on destroying him.
Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus gave a blunt indictment of how human societies tend to operate. Leaders reassert authority by oppressing and tyrannizing their subjects (Mark 10:42). Jesus’ passion then becomes Exhibit A in proving his case.
· Nothing in his prosecution resembles justice. The outcome of his “trial” is determined before the show even begins (Mark 14:55).
· Throughout the process from arrest to crucifixion, Jesus looks more like an object than a subject. He hardly speaks. He is the subject of very few active verbs. Others act upon him, abusively.
· He experiences total abandonment, left alone by his friends, rejected by his leaders, derided by passersby, and even apparently forsaken by the God who might have been able to keep this from happening.
We assume his death was agonizing; after all, we’re talking about crucifixion. But this Gospel draws no explicit attention to the blood and pain. Those are not the point. Rejection and isolation define the misery more than physical discomfort does. When his hour comes, everything and everyone fail him.
Other biblical authors eagerly tell about the benefits of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (what God does, or what God fixes through Jesus). But Mark’s Gospel stands in sharp contrast. It says hardly anything about those topics. The book appears much more interested in guiding its readers into the story of Jesus’ downfall. It takes us into the drama, not to explain it, but to make us dwell there uncomfortably.
In dwelling there, perhaps we may glimpse something we recognize.